Roger Federer lost the Brisbane final yesterday. I purposely waited for a while before thinking about what to write for this post. I wanted to clear my head before sitting at my laptop again. So after the match, I spoke with my mother, played with my cat and went for a walk.
As I chatted with my mother about something completely unrelated to tennis, my initial high-strung emotions slowly dissipated. As I played with my cat I felt lighter and could even smile; I can usually rely on Simba to make me smile. By the time I went for a walk I was able to think about it clearly and when I was done, I knew what I was going to write.
I realized for me what helped was to look at not just the match but rather the match as part of the tournament and more importantly, the tournament as part of a longer journey. I think this journey started last year in Basel which is symbolic in its own way. Basel was where it all began for the Maestro and it makes sense that after the tough year he had, his climb back started from there as well. 2013 started going downhill from as far back as Rotterdam and it wasn’t until Basel that the rot was stopped. Since then on, it seemed the worst was behind us and I find myself still firmly believing that. Basel was a very good tourney and he carried that form into Bercy and then London. Was it vintage Federer? Not nearly, though I still believe he gave us the shot of last year in London vs. Delpo. But it was a welcome improvement. His performance, grit and intensity increased over those 3 tourneys and he went into the off-season feeling much better about himself than a few months prior.
After an off-season that was packed with training he came to Brisbane ready to test himself. Not only was he testing his own body, he was also testing a new racquet. The Brisbane draw was a good mix of players at different levels of their tennis. First up he faced the perennial top 40r Nieminen who can cause problems on any given day. Then came the Aussie Matosevic, a player he had never faced and one who could’ve made him work for it but he underperformed, in part due to Federer’s brilliance. Next came Chardy, another unknown player but with a great serve and big forehand. Roger had to fight through this one but ultimately came through and went into the final without being broken.
The final vs. Hewitt started off with the worst possible way as he was broken right away. Hewitt has always been very strong mentally; add in the fact that he was playing on home soil and how hungry he was for his first title since 2010, nothing was higher than his motivation that day. He said later, in that first set, he saw the ball as big as a football. Meanwhile, Roger looked distracted in that set. His movement was sluggish, his body language negative and he hit shanks so far wide the balls could’ve landed in Melbourne to be used at the Australian Open. He confirmed that there was no back issue which leads me to think it was a combination of some physical and mostly mental fatigue, annoyance and general discomfort at being challenged as fiercely as Lleyton was fighting him.
We know how the match went. He somehow found his rhythm in the 2nd set, fired 5 consecutive aces in a row and took the set. Then came the beginning of the 3rd set where the momentum was with him. Sure enough he got multiple breakpoint opportunities, 7 in fact. He squandered them all while Lleyton converted the one he got and the writing was on the wall. I was sad to see the breakpoint issue rear its ugly head because in the 3 tourneys at the end of last year he looked to have more control over that problem. Regardless, after that first set which was bizarre, I thought he did a good job of hanging on and maybe another way to look at the breakpoints opportunities was that he kept putting Hewitt under pressure.
But enough about the match. It left some fans sad while others were angry and some downright mean which is something I will never understand. How can you be mean, rude and hateful towards someone and claim to be their fan? 😦 Anyway….. setting these haters aside, I understand the sadness felt by many because I felt it too. But then I took a break, thought rationally and came to my understanding about the journey he was on. I then realized if Basel was the start of the new race, Brisbane was the pit-stop. To pause and check progress, and address any hiccups faced. As such, here are my take-aways from Brisbane:
- The new racquet still feels a bit alien to him at times though it seems to be a much better fit than the post-Wimbledon one.
- His returning still needs some work. This court was super fast however, so to be fair, it was difficult for other players too. Nonetheless, this is something he could focus on.
- When all else was failing, his serve stood strong for the majority of it. Throughout the tourney he consistently served well and hit over 40 aces. The last time I remember such a good serving tourney was probably Australian Open 2013. If nothing else, the new racquet seems to have made a positive impact here.
- Barring that first set in the final which I still don’t quite understand, his body held up well. More importantly, his back seems fine, thank goodness.
- It seemed he was able to handle players up to a certain caliber but was perhaps not quite there yet in terms of facing a performance like the kind Lleyton produced. I don’t care what the rankings say, Hewitt did not play like a player ranked 60 in the world. He played like a former #1 and a Grand Slam Champion. He was by far the best player Roger faced this week and I think Roger is leaving Brisbane with an idea of what gear he needs to take it up to going forward. He will be more aware of exactly what and how much he needs to improve. Coming in, he didn’t have a barometer to gauge his progress. Now he does and I for one don’t think the prognosis is bad at all especially considering the new racquet situation.
- The obvious area of work needed is his confidence. He said so himself, he needs a bit more confidence to win tournaments. The way to get confidence is to win more matches. I firmly believe he will get there as the year goes on. We’re only on January 6th remember?
- Coming into the new year after a 6 week off-season with a new racquet, a final is not too shabby don’t you think? May I remind you that world # 3, 4, 7 and 9 also played an ATP 250 in Doha and all lost before the QFs. Plus none of them had gone into the off-season with as much to work on as Roger. None of them were being pushed into retirement even though they ended the year ranked in the top 10. None of them were speculated about as much as Roger. Considering all that baggage, I’ll take the final in Brisbane, thank you very much.
Well there you have it, my concluding thoughts on Brisbane. Going into the Australian Open he has areas to think about and discuss with Luthi and also Edberg. But I don’t think that one final undid all the good that came out of that tourney. I also think he is in a much better place going into Melbourne than he was after the US Open last year. It hasn’t been an easy ride back up, but since Basel, it’s been two steps forward and one step back.
Progress has been made, is being made and will continue to be made. In the meantime, it might not be pretty so if you’re not cut out for the bumpy ride, I would suggest you get off the train. As for me, I have no choice but to stay on. I bought a lifetime supply of tickets when I got on the FedExpress, I don’t even know where the emergency exit door is.