Cover Story - Sportstar on Roger Federer
Wimbledon is where Roger Federer seeks his first Grand Slam title of the season. This is where the five-time winner’s success or failure in the latter half of the year and his hold on the No. 1 spot could be determined, writes Nandita Sridhar.
For the last two years Roger Federer’s redeeming qualities post clay season have found favour at the Wimbledon Centre Court. But because of the unthinkable line of events leading up to the French Open final, the Swiss isn’t seen as the outright favourite to go one better than Bjorn Borg.
Ploughing on despite knowing your best isn’t enough is something the greats aren’t always capable of, which invariably leads to the sort of performance one saw from Federer at Roland Garros.
The scoreline offered itself for the reactions one saw from all quarters. Had Federer fallen victim to a feisty grinding floater or even scratched around for a set against Nadal, the image of surrender might have been less defined. The nature of the final hasn’t helped his case but, pragmatically, it meant he was fresh for Halle, his build-up to Wimbledon.
It didn’t help that there was little of the pseudo-aggressive tactics from Federer that some use as denial. Body language is often misread purely in the context of result. What appears imperious, regal and effortless in Federer’s detached nonchalant style is condemned as indifferent and even meek when the forehands sail wide. The only indulgence this season has been his minor concessions to emotion (curls brusquely tossed aside, the odd expletive in his chosen linguistic medium). But the picture at Roland Garros wasn’t of a battered soul or severed ego, but that of resignation.
So, it’s here again, at the most prestigious Grand Slam stage that Federer seeks to restore order. The atmosphere at Wimbledon, the antithesis of a big-prize event, where men and women battle in whites, well within the tenets of grace and decent behaviour, is where the five-time winner seeks his first Grand Slam title of the season.
The dynamics of grass-court tennis have changed. The grass hasn’t merely slowed down. The ball skids less, which has helped in higher bounce. Despite that, the serve is still worthy of its place atop in the search for cheap points.
It will be these cheap points that Federer will have to rely on with the rise of his nearest rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, both of whom will pose his biggest threat at Wimbledon. Nadal has ridden on his French Open triumphs in building a stature of strength at Wimbledon. Despite claims of it being his least favourite surface, the grass suits the Spaniard more than the faster courts of Flushing Meadows with lower bounce, or even the surface at the Australian Open.
It seems odd that a five-time winner and defending champion isn’t the overwhelming favourite, but it reflects the slide that began with Federer’s loss to Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinal. More than the losses, the manner of the defeats has been alarming. Federer had set-points at the Australian Open semifinal, breaks, break-points and chances to serve out sets against Nadal at both Monte Carlo and Hamburg. None of these opportunities were taken.
Federer’s game relies on timing, on confidence and freedom. The ease, the remarkable self-assurance and the aura of invincibility have all combined to give him the advantage. Unforced errors have been minor sacrifices, obliterated by a singular wicked whiplash winner. This season, there’s been weariness, tightness and a look of being stifled. As paradoxical as it might sound, the more freedom he gives himself to err, the less he errs. Federer’s game is less likely to degenerate and more likely to blossom, which means a quicker restoration is a possibility.
It isn’t that the World No. 1’s game has hit a roadblock. The winner of 12 Grand Slams needs no tutoring, but there does come a stage when your own achievements bog you down, when the rigours of professional tennis, the compulsion to win tournaments of lesser significance to defend points, peers who’re reaching the peaks of their playing careers and illness make different demands on your mental conditioning.
When it seemed like he’d reached the peak of his mental faculties by staying on top for as long as he has, he’s been pushed further into difficult sustenance. He proved he could get to the top, proved he could stay there, but it doesn’t end there.
Nothing short of winning Wimbledon can do it for the Swiss. His biggest challenger, Rafael Nadal, has shown remarkable malleability in his grass-court game, which helped him claim his maiden grass-court title at Queen’s. The left-hander’s first serves are reliable, finding difficult angles. The defending champion’s serve, which held him in good stead at Halle, needs to fire like it did at Wimbledon last year. Nadal’s tactics of positioning himself within the baseline helps him send the ball deeper and with a lot of power, making it paramount for Federer to serve well.
The reason Federer will still go in as the slight favourite to win Wimbledon will be because of the sense of occasion that comes from being the five-time Wimbledon champion. Down four break points in the decider last year, Federer rose to the challenge with inconceivable passing shots and serves of incredible precision. There’s been a distinct vulnerability in doing the same this year (an alarming decline in his break-point conversion being the index of his form), but that’s not to suggest he will not find top form at the grass-court Slam.
The Wimbledon final that pitted two of the current best against each other added further character to a fascinating rivalry. While Federer and Nadal have battled in the last two editions, the women’s field seems likely to welcome a different champion. Maria Sharapova, having relinquished her No. 1 ranking to Ana Ivanovic, will seek success in the Slam that made her the force she is in women’s tennis. A suspect shoulder has contributed to an error-prone clay season and this will be her biggest challenge. French Open champion Ivanovic’s heavy strokes will find less favour from the grass, but the 2007 semifinalist will be dangerous after her maiden Grand Slam triumph.
Defending champion Venus Williams and sister Serena have struggled to cope with injury and form, which all add up to a possibly defiant run. It seems likely that one of the four will hold aloft the Venus Rosewater Dish unless Jelena Jankovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova or Dinara Safina manage something special.
But it will be the historically significant men’s event one will look to for intrigue. Wimbledon is the event that could determine Federer’s success or failure in the latter half of the year and his hold on the No. 1 spot. His desire to win the French is relatively more theoretical than his need to prolong his domination at Wimbledon.
Against a stronger, more aggressive and more confident Nadal and a field that is less intimidated, Federer faces a bigger test than the one he did in Paris.
6 months ago