Like many of you, I’ve been having some thoughts on the changing of the guard…
Watching yet another #1 player’s run come to a close makes me think of the way the scenario went with other great players, and I’ve started to wonder about something. TP’s right that typically around 26 or 27, even the great players stop winning so much. OK, that seems natural, especially with the next wave of players coming up, and many of them building a game geared to beat the top guy. But watching Federer play these past months, and that last match with Karlovic, I started thinking he really wasn’t playing horribly. He played a pretty good match against Ivo, in fact. But that mental edge…that’s what’s missing. Of course, that’s ALWAYS the thing that goes first, because let’s face it, it is not so much a physical decline at 26-27 years old. One is barely in their prime then. There’s not enough that changes to warrant such a drop in performance. No. IMO, it’s the fact that the commentators, the media, and yes the fans too, all reach a point where the run is so long or the records so astounding that everyone can’t help but to question how much longer it can possibly last. And question. And question.
At the end of the day, even the greatest of tennis players is still human. THEY know it can’t go on forever either. And I’ve got to wonder if everyone just kept quiet and watched and waited, instead of badgering the guys with questions about their own potential demise, to the point where the relentlessness of it all begins to erode the player’s confidence — if not for this, I wonder if the ‘age of decline’ would extend to 27 or 28…
Four or five years go by, and the combined pressure of being number one, obligations on and off the court, the year after year of having to defend a ridiculous amount of points, and anyone would start to feel mentally tired. Even fans tire of seeing the same guy win all the time. But that’s just when he most needs to find a way to stay motivated. And right about that time is when an avalance of expectation and questions come down on him, when every glitch in the player’s game is under scrutiny. Every loss of set, or match. Hell, in Fed’s case, even the loss of a serve became a source for endless discussion. Everyone doubting now. Casting doubt… So the player doubts.
Maybe Roger got off to a bad start in ‘08 from being sick, and it’s no matter now that he’s fit again or whatever — this was the year where he had the chance to overtake all the records, but he needed to hit the ground running and it didn’t happen. It may never happen now. But then again, with all the focus on Nadal, Fed might go off at year-end and re-focus, shake off all the pressure, and coming back with few points to defend, end up with a very good 2009. Me, I’d like to see him relax and come back playing as if he’s enjoying the game again, because when he’s lose and swinging freely, there’s nothing quite like it. He may yet step up to the challenge of breaking that big Sampras GS record. He’s still got time, and I think he still has it in him. It’s the kind of stuff we hope for in tennis. Everyone loves a comeback, and who doesn’t want to see more tennis between Roger and Rafa?
I liked and respected Sampras, and fully appreciate his accomplishments and how tough it was to dominate for so long. But his game plan to keep the points short and crush his opponents sometimes left me wanting something – MORE. Of the ‘rivalry’, Agassi was my guy – he would always be my pick between them. Just as McEnroe was always my pick, and Navratilova…later on Lendl and Graf too. When Federer came along, I found myself solidly behind a guy who seemed to have a perfect game, and I accepted the inevitable rollercoaster ride of watching him rise, sustaining an unbelievable run, and now, reaching that next stage in his career. That stage I’ve come to dread… When one is that emotionally invested in a particular player, it is SO hard to see them start to lose, and we go into all kinds of denial because we just don’t want to let go of their runs when the time comes.
I really do think of myself as a tennis addict, and Federer’s game for me has indeed been addictive. For a while it even seemed that anyone else’s game was almost mundane by comparison. And I’m there with many of you – I feel it now – that bit of heartbreak. But I’ve realized something else in these past weeks, now that the pressure is off where Roger is concerned. I can go back to enjoying the matches without the alcohol (heh) and without the same anxiety level about who’s going to win or lose. I can just enjoy the match-ups because the truth is there are many really fine players on the tour and a lot of good tennis being played…and Roger’s still going to be out there, too. But it’s almost a little sense of relief, and I like having that again because I DO love watching tennis.
So to all of you ‘new to tennis’ fans, or those of you who found tennis because of Roger Federer, I just want to say don’t give up on the GAME because what initially attracted you is not the focus anymore. It’s a great ride, and I promise you, eventually you won’t be able to help yourselves from saying, “Vamos, Rafa!”, or cheering on some other favorite player. You’ll get used to the changing of the guard, even if it sometimes breaks your heart. And soon, it really does become all about the tennis and the desire to see it played well. One day you guys will look back and think, ‘Wow, I got to see Roger Federer play in his prime!’. But you’ll also have a list of many other great players that will come after him, and all the fantastic matches you’ve seen…
Meanwhile, it’s time to give Nadal his due. He’s a talented, hard worker with focus and determination to improve, and he never steps out on the court without the intention of giving it his absolute all. Appreciate it while you can. A few years from now we’ll be wringing our hands over ‘losing’ him to the next guy too!