As we all know by now Roger Federer crashed out of the French Open in a comprehensive straight sets loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The scoreline was dismal, the match quality from Roger, even more so. What made the loss even harder to bear was it started off well. Roger was actually up a break and 40-15 to go up to 5-3 in the 1st set. He got broken from there and it all went downhill after that. He was off in every department, his returns were weak, he missed three (yes, you read that right) overhead smashes; no aces, 3 double faults. His movement seemed sluggish, his energy levels were low and he was irritated and frustrated, which I guess is understandable considering how poorly he played.
Jo for his part is no journeyman player. He has oodles of talent and a big aggressive game. What has been lacking from him in the past was consistency. Jo, like most French players, has a ton of flair but can waver in performance day in day out. Under his new coach he seems to have reined that in a bit and credit must be given to him for never lifting his foot off the pedal. He pushed Roger from the start and never let up. It wasn’t brilliant the entire time, but it was more than enough to do the job, especially considering his opponent was misfiring in all departments.
A loss might have been predicted by some but I doubt very few would have predicted such a wash-out. Federer was playing well this French Open. He sailed through the first few rounds. Granted they were low ranked opponents but it’s never easy to play unknown players. He then took care of Benneteau and I thought he played a very good match against Simon because for a while there, he had lost his way when he stumbled in the red dirt. He got a ton of match practice with that win and I thought he would have confidence coming in. Obviously I was wrong and am now left to ponder two questions: what happened? And where will it go from here?
Let’s take the first one, and here’s my totally non-expert ‘theory’ in what happened. I get the feeling that lately Roger panics a little too quickly on court; if not panic, then at the very least, he loses faith in himself when the match deviates ever so slightly from the script. Then, either he doesn’t change his tactics quickly enough, or he just steps up the aggression and overhits everything. This is something new that wasn’t there last year. It’s almost like he over-thinks or gets too worried to see the game clearly. I didn’t see this problem at the Australian Open. At Rotterdam, he was completely out of sorts and it was the only time I questioned his motivation, (meaning I got the feeling he didn’t really feel like being there, in the Rotterdam tourney in particular, NOT that he no longer wanted to play tennis). But those match points in Dubai, that Madrid match against Nishikori and this French Open match are where I think he just ran out of options in his head because he couldn’t regroup and think straight. I don’t count Indian Wells here because he was definitely injured and I don’t count Rome here because he played a great tournament and that final loss was actually the one time this year where I saw him try new things to take out his old nemesis. But back to the three matches I mentioned, I do think he is having problems adapting his game plan quickly and calmly and then executing it.
I know the word out there is he is old(er) and hence slower in his movement and I guess slower to react and anticipate as well. I don’t buy into that idea completely. Not yet. At the end of the day, he’s still a supreme athlete and even if he is slower than before, that’s still faster than 99% of the guys out there. Nor do I believe the ‘lack of motivation’ argument. He has said time and time again he is motivated and in the sky sports interview when asked how he will know when to retire he said he plans to be around for a while and doesn’t think about it too much. For an insanely competitive person who is still ranked as one of the top players of the world and has the opportunity to add more to his trophy cabinet, I see no reason why he wouldn’t be motivated. Honestly, just because he’s won more grand slams than anybody else doesn’t mean he should stop, otherwise he could’ve retired post 2009 when he broke Pete’s record of 14. Nor do I think it’s a back issue. We’ve seen him play with a back issue at Indian Wells and the 3 matches I mentioned did not resemble those Indian Wells matches he played with a bad back, at least in my opinion.
So no, it’s not because he’s old, has back issues or not motivated. My take on it is he is worried that he’s not doing well. He is putting that pressure on himself. Obviously he knows he hasn’t defended any of his titles this year. He took a long break off the tour and while he had his reasons it becomes difficult to justify them when he’s not performing. But this lack of performance is causing him to worry further which is causing him to doubt himself on court when faced with difficult situations. This doubt is leading to bad losses and therefore, more worries; it’s a vicious cycle. Well that’s my wild conjecture anyway. Obviously I am not in his head or a member of his inner circle so yes, before anybody jumps out at me in protest, I do agree that I’m purely speculating. Regardless, if I follow that theory it leads me to the next question, where can he go from here?
I think what he sorely needs is a title, any title. He needs to play well throughout an entire tournament and actually win the whole thing. I feel once he gets his confidence back he will relax and play his natural game more and trust his instincts. And Halle would be just the place to take care of business. For starters, its grass, lush, pretty, soothing, green grass, the Maestro’s favorite surface. Also, he’s had plenty of success at Halle before.It would be a great way to head towards Wimbledon with a successful grass tourney already in hand to give him the self-belief he needs.
However, even if, for whatever reason he can’t turn it around by Wimbledon, I believe there is still hope as there will be plenty of tennis to be played in the 2nd half of the year. I keep getting the feeling this year will be similar to 2011. In 2011, he had won Doha but after that, he won nothing else till Basel – that was a 9 month drought. Yet he came through at the end. I am pretty confident that despite how the year started, it will end on a much higher note. The next title is around the corner. We need to believe in our champion but most of all, he needs to believe in himself. Trust your instincts and your natural game Roger, the wins will come. In the meantime Roger-Federer-Allee awaits its King 😀