Even winning titles like he did at Estoril will not bring back that aura. Federer needs to put together a decent string of consistent victories, to convincingly declare to the world that he is back for more.
At the AO open this year, he started out brilliantly winning his first two matches in straight sets. Considering he was just coming off the mono illness that prevented him from playing at Kooyong, it was a very impressive showing specially when both wins had three bagels peppered all over them. One of them was against Santoro, 36th ranked player in the world, who had just destroyed a 22-year old 6′ 9″ Isner in straight sets in his previous match.
Uptil now it appeared Federer was back with vengeance and a repeat of last year’s AO, when he won the title without dropping a single set was in order. Then comes a 49th ranked Tipsarevic who takes Federer to a nail biting five-setter. The fifth set score? 10-8. The match lasted four freaking hours and 25 minutes. That’s after Federer had almost 40 aces to mere 12 from Tipsy.
Federer composed himself after that match and dispatched two dangerous opponents in Berdych and Blake in straight sets back to back, reviving hopes of fans worldwide. With Djokovic, whom he had demolished in straight sets couple of months ago at US Open finals, next, it seemed Federer had steadied himself for the big challenge.
But that inconsistency bug showed up again to allow Djokovic to win the match in three straight sets.
Federer took a whole month off, to hopefully rest and recuperate from the illness and the shock of having his calendar and Golden Slam hopes dashed abruptly so early in the season. But that also meant not playing any matches, a tag that appeared to be working against him since he had not played a match on the tour since November of last year, while everyone else like Nadal and Djokovic were getting their share of exposure and enough matches under their belt, to feel comfortable at the beginning of a crucial season.
Well, Federer comes out for his first match after the AO in March against Murray at Dubai and loses in the opening round. That was the second losing streak for him in about four months. Last one was in Oct-Nov losing to Nalbandian and Gonzalez.
Putting that behind him, Federer again goes on a tear at Indian Wells taking out all three of his opponents in straight sets, again stoking hopes of his return to the top. But again, true to the pattern developing so clearly, he falls to Fish in straight sets in the semifinals. Fish was 0-5 against Federer at the time and had won just one set in those five matches, apart from eating a bagel. He was ranked 98th in the world and despite his incredible run so far in the tournament where he defeated Davydenko, Hewitt and Nalbandian, last two in a third set tie break, there was no way he could get past Federer who appeared to be in such deadly form. But Federer failed miserably – again, losing in straight sets.
Moving on to Miami, Federer starts it all over again – by defeating all three of his opponents in straight sets, again giving hope to getting back to his dominating self. With Roddick whom he literally owned by now, next, it appeared another beating for Roddick was in the works. But once again, in line with the inconsistent play, he succumbed to Roddick in three sets.
So far Federer had come out with inspired play in the first few rounds of every tournament, only to disintegrate at the semis and the quarterfinal level, except in Murray’s case, where it was the opening round.
But as he moved on to the clay season, even that initial burst started to fade, as he struggled in his opening round against Rochus, winning in three sets. But he came back to post straight set victories in his next two matches to indicate that opening round match may have been a hiccup. But at the very next match, against a 104th ranked player, Federer dropped the second set of the tournament before winning it in three sets.
With Davydenko next, everyone feared the worst, based on the clear pattern that had developed by now. Besides, Davydenko was No. 4 in the world and had just won at Miami defeating Roddick and Nadal back to back. The first set went to a close tie break despite five break point opportunities for Federer and four for Davydenko. Federer barely won the set and Davydenko despite up a break in the second set called it quits and Federer won his first title of the year – on clay.
Monte Carlo: Federer now appeared to be starting a new pattern – struggling against early rounders like he did at Estoril, unlike what he did at all the other four hard court events before that. Sure enough, in his opening round match against a 30-year old, 137th ranked player, Federer was stretched to three sets and won the match in a crap shoot tie break in the third. With Monfils, No. 64 next, most had already given up hope and were on their knees praying. But to keep true to his inconsistent play, Federer summoned his form to brush Monfils in straight sets.
Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. But Nalbandian was next. There was no way he is going to get past him, everyone thought. Nalbandian was on a hot run even dishing out a bagel on his way. But Federer again returned to his form and defeated Nalbandian despite losing the first set 5-7.
Was he gradually coming into his own? This would be the time to do it, as another hot clown Djokovic was next. Djokovic had not only not dropped a set he had dished two bagels against quality players like Murray and Querrey.
But probably the history between the two players, forced a near perfect performance out of Federer, leaving Djokovic the option to lose or retire. He retired to allow fans a feast of Federer-Nadal final.
With so much momentum going in, it appeared Federer was peaking at the right time. But once again the inconsistency flared up to disallow Federer from cashing in on opportunities nobody else gets against Nadal on clay. He lost in straight sets despite being up a break in the first set and 4-0 in the second.
While Nadal had some part in that reversal of fortunes, it appears from the pattern that has developed since January and possibly before that, inconsistent play may be the real culprit.
Even though Federer and his camp have many positives to take from whatever has happened lately, this is no time to be celebrating. If you track Federer’s performance since the beginning of last year, the four step forward one step back has gradually been reduced to two step forward one step back.
It’s called inconsistent play. It usually shows up before the eventual end. Every great athlete experiences it. The old magic starts to appear only in flashes instead of being on all the time as in years past. And that light gradually goes out completely.
There are a lot of factors that preclude Federer from that possibility. Foremost among them being age. He is still just 26, considered near prime in the tennis world. The irreversible slowdown usually occurs around and after age 28 tapering out around 30-31. Even if you consider the hectic pace he has been on for the past four some years, the ease with which he has won matches during that time, erases the heavy physical toll theory.
So what is the reason for the up and down performance? Who freaking knows? Maybe even Federer doesn’t know. We can only guess. The most logical and ‘everyone should be hoping’ explanation has to be mono. If it’s not mono, then the trouble is very real and possibly beyond repair.
But the biggest silver lining to the whole season has to be his flawless showing against Djokovic. Was it just coincidental that his game showed up then or did the ‘how much was at stake against that player’ and the ‘next one to grab his throne’ scenario forced Federer to dig deep down to find his magic? It may not be coincidental. You think!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Translation: Federer is still capable of reaching far enough to find his game if the stakes are high enough, to will himself through a match. Djokovic played better than anyone else at Monte Carlo against Federer, far better, but it was still not even close. Everything Djokovic tried came back even harder and sharper, even from his backhand.
Considering Djokovic had defeated Federer in straight sets at the AO and everything that had happened to Federer after that, Federer, after winning that match, had the feeling he has already achieved enough. It was similar to Roddick beating Federer and then tamely going out against Davydenko. At this point, based on all the media hype, win over Djokovic is a lot sweeter than win over Nadal on clay. That was the peak for Federer who breathed a sigh of relief a little longer, for Monte Carlo trophy to be in his bag. It proved to be a reverse trap match for Federer.
Going forward this final appearance at Monte Carlo can bode well for Federer if he meets Nadal again in the finals at any of the three clay events left. Djokovic falling on Nadal’s half specially at Roland Garros cannot hurt. His best shot will again come at Hamburg, since Nadal is continuing his stubborn run of playing four events back to back to back to back – Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Hamburg – with not even a day separating any of the four tournaments.
This is critical time for Federer mainly because he has been able to reverse the tide for the first time this year. Although it’s still not seamless, the trend is vital for his confidence, which must have been in tatters before the start of the clay season.
Besides, now that his No. 1 rank is not under any immediate attack, Federer should be able to play loose and close to his natural game.
Can he keep the graph moving upwards or is the next step down just round the corner?