As we gear up for Indian Wells, I feel I should write a concluding post on Dubai, but for the past 2 days, I’ve had trouble coming up with exactly what I want to say. Roger Federer is the defending champion at Indian Wells and I’m not entirely sure what to expect. Since the Australian Open, we’ve seen a somewhat negative Roger. In Rotterdam, his movement was gone as was the hunger and intensity in his eyes. I wrote a piece after the early exit of Rotterdam alluding to the fact that he feels listless without his family and whole team with him. I firmly believe that to still be the case; but then how to explain Dubai where he was able to go back to his own bed after each match? I also think he had bad back issues in Rotterdam but I do feel the back was much better in Dubai and I thought he moved well there. Though some have said that his drop in first serves indicates his back problems are very much present. He definitely played better in Dubai than in Rotterdam and maybe that’s due to having his family closer, the back problems being less aggravating and the weather being warmer. But having 3 match points, Roger gave it away. And I was left saddened and confused as to why the wheels had come off when seemingly he was on fire the night before.
Granted, before the SFs he played Davydenko, a man he’s now defeated 19 times out of 21. Still, he did it with such precision and in such a merciless way that you had to have high hopes going into the SFs. I know I did. But as the Swiss choked and failed to take any of the 3 match points I got acutely reminded that not only was he not playing Davydenko, he was playing Berdych. Others might balk at the idea but I do believe Berdych is in his head somehow, which is interesting because I don’t think Novak or Andy is. In my opinion, so far it’s just been Rafa that’s managed to shake up his mental steeliness and I am not placing Berdych anywhere near that. But after this match I do have to say at least 15% of it was in FedEx’s head. Which is why I wanted this win even more; so he could get over this mental hurdle and put US Open 2012 behind him.
I’m also somewhat worried that he hasn’t won a title since last August in Cincy and he hasn’t made a final this year. I was fine with his Australian Open performance. Had he been able to put Jo away quicker, he could’ve had a better shot against Murray, but Jo played brilliantly. Rotterdam as we know was a disaster whereas Dubai wasn’t so much a disaster as it was painful. Out of Rotterdam, Dubai and Indian Wells I had expected him to win Rotterdam at least, had some hopes for Dubai though I knew Nole would be the favorite and looking forward to Indian Wells, like I said above, I honestly have no idea though obviously would love for him to go all the way. It’s the first Masters of the year meaning the draw is packed with, well everyone, now that Rafa has also committed to it. So he will need to bring his A-game e.g. his match vs. Davydenko in Dubai, to plow through it all.
It is also somewhat disconcerting when you realize that he and Berdych are the only 2 in the top 10 who haven’t already won titles this year. #1 Novak won the Australian Open and Dubai, #3 Murray won Brisbane, #4 Ferrer won in Auckland and Buenos Aires, #5 Rafa won in Sao Paulo and now Acapulco (despite his 7 month break), #7 Delpo won in Rotterdam, #8 Tsonga won in Marseille, #9 Tipsarevic won in Chennai and #10 Gasquet in Doha and Montpellier. And Berdych at least made the finals of Marseille and Dubai. And I say this especially because Roger has talked about winning titles and going deep in each tournament rather than the rankings. I believe in that idea as well but that DOES mean he actually needs to go deep and at least win a few of the ones he is entering.
In many ways I felt since the end of last year, that there is a good chance we could be in for a 2011 kind of a year in 2013, given how burnt out he looked from the US Open exit and then Shanghai onwards in 2012. But as I was thinking of that I remembered how thrilled I was with his finish in 2011 and how that led into a brilliant beginning of 2012. I get the feeling that in Indian Wells he might get even more burnt, hurt and wounded. Just like at the US Open of 2011. Then he will go off for two months and retreat into his secret laboratory where, after a nice holiday (I am demanding he update us on his facebook page) he will meet with his A-team and chalk out a plan. Hopefully Annacone and Luthi will work on his serves, his returns and help him clean up his volleys. Equally important are his sessions with Paganini so that his body will be able to handle the rigorous stretch of the summer till Wimbledon. And then just like he did at Basel in 2011, he’ll emerge fresh and ready for Madrid in May. Sometimes you need to hit the bottom before you can rise back up and I think he’ll do that and bounce back, with his laser focus, unwavering talent and ruthless ambition all nicely bundled into a neat package of tennis peRFection.
He has also said his could always amend his schedule as the year progresses, and I think that means he might add a tourney or two depending on how his body holds up post Wimbledon and his success by that point. If he hasn’t won titles by then I think he will/should enter a few ATP 250s or an additional ATP 500 even to get a title or two under his belt and get his confidence going. I think Rafa was quite intelligent in starting out at the ATP 250s and Roger should do the same if need be. He might start the year miserably (by his standards) but I have high hopes he can end it on a winning note.
At the end of the day I think these long breaks are not just about the body but about the mind too and by that I don’t mean just to enjoy time with his family. He also needs to feel fresh and motivated as far as tennis is concerned and be ready to sacrifice in order to get back on tour competing at the highest of levels. For that to happen, I think he needs to go away from tennis long enough to miss it. His life outside of tennis is quite appealing with his family, his foundation and the fact that were he to quit today he would still be hailed as probably the greatest of all time. But I feel that once he is away for a significant chunk of time he will start to miss the travel, the tour, the fans and the game. Deep inside, he’s a champion 17 times over and champions cannot lie low for long. They are wired differently from the rest of us mortals. They love the challenge, the pain, the frustrations and jubilation – they love the hunt and the adrenaline high from competing with the best and coming out even stronger.
I really do believe that as much as it will kill us, those two months could save him (and us) in every way imaginable. So while he’s off fine-tuning himself, what are we fans to do? Perhaps we can take a break from tennis and actually get proper sleep in our own time zones. Surprise our friends, family and co-workers by showing up to work/school/birthdays wide awake and not checking the scores on our phones or using tennis lingo in our daily lives. Example: My brother threw me an orange and it bounced off the top of the chair causing me to miss it and I immediately pointed out that it was a let – my family quietly turned to stare at me, I sighed and proceeded to peel my orange; no comment. Maybe smelling the roses and listening to the birds will be good for us? And if this doesn’t sound appealing to you, hey, youtube actually has a few full-length Federer matches now – I recently watched the Roland Garros 2011 SF and it was glorious! Either way, we can all meet up in Madrid, via a thousand TV screens and streams as the Maestro makes his entrance on the stage once more. We will all hold our breath simultaneously as the umpire’s microphone crackles “Ready? Play” – and then Roger will thrill us again as only he knows how – just you wait.
For now, I think he should head to Indian Wells not with thoughts of defending his title, but rather with the goal to just play lights-out tennis. He can afford to push his body hard because of the break coming right up so he should go out there with the intent to annihilate and leave it all out on the court; forget the rankings, forget the worried expressions and just play – and who knows, that might do the trick. And really Roger, wouldn’t it be just lovely to silence everyone, take the trophy and ride off into the sunset, full of confidence (and relief) with streamers glittering in your fabulous hair? Looking at the photos, I rest my case. Allez!