by Manjunath Shekara
[...] In recent times, Federer’s innate ability of remaining relevant to the sport has been analyzed and eulogized. In my opinion, his game is where he wants it to be technically and tactically, but not mentally. Yes, that seems very unfair a comment when he has won 17 Grand Slam titles and is currently World No. 2 at the age of 34. But I’m talking about something very specific.
The larger racquet, the Edbergian School of Coaching, the smart scheduling and the SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) have definitely added layers to Federer’s supreme game. However, certain mental aspects of his game seem to be untapped so far.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion showed a few chinks in his mental armor even in his prime. Federer’s arch-rival and nemesis, Rafael Nadal, has always given him a rough time as evidenced by a lop-sided head to head of 23-10 in Nadal’s favour. 13 of those 23 victories for Nadal have come on clay, his favourite surface, but on quick surfaces like those in Wimbledon and the O2 arena at London Federer has dominated their clashes.
At the Monte Carlo Masters this year Federer, against Gael Monfils, was up a break in the first set, but he went on to lose the set 6-4. In the second set tiebreak, though he led 5-3, he lost four points in a row to lose the set and the match. In both sets, there was a decrease in his intensity when he was in the driver’s seat. This is just one of the many instances recently in which patterns of his mental let-downs have come to the fore.
On the heels of a phenomenal comeback in 2014, Federer stressed on the fact that he experienced ‘zen’ while on court. He was unfazed by being broken or while trailing in a match. In fact, he managed a Houdini-like escape against Leonardo Mayer in the opening round of the Shanghai Masters, defeated Gael Monfils in a thrilling five-set battle in the quarterfinal of the US Open 2014 after losing the first two sets, and also staved off four match points to win a controversy-ridden semifinal against Stan Wawrinka in the ATP World Tour Finals at London last year.
However the same zen just seemed to abandon him in not one, not two but three Grand Slam finals against Djokovic. Two of these finals were within his bastion too – Wimbledon, where he has won seven times.
At the US Open 2015 Federer was never threatened in his early matches. He did not drop a single set on his way to the final. He served ominously and fired winners at will. His body language was relaxed and he played with his signature flair that drew the usual superlatives from experts and sports writers alike.
However, in the final, Federer had a shaky start. He did not play the committed tennis he wanted to. He did do a good job of clinching the second set, but he could not build on the momentum in the beginning of the third.
The rest of the final followed a pattern similar to the previous two Wimbledon finals. Djokovic played a great match and was also prepared for the SABR, Federer’s latest weapon in his repertoire. The Serb neutralized the SABR with precise lobs.
Federer did well to create a number of break point opportunities for himself. But every time he got there he played conservatively. Was it self-doubt? Was it fear? Does the big occasion of turning 18 as a Grand Slam champion get to him? Did he allow the rain delay and the entailing slow conditions on the court to play on his mind? A poor break point conversion of 4/23 ultimately did him in, and that's never a comforting thought.
Kevin Anderson reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at this year’s US Open and credited his success to a sport psychologist he had been working with in the run-up to the event. A couple of years back Andy Murray hired the sports psychologist who had helped his former Coach Ivan Lendl. This decision seemed to benefit Murray as he won two Grand Slams in that period. He still continues to work with a psychiatrist to understand his thought process, reactions and emotions on court better.
Federer’s coaches – Stefan Edberg and Severin Luthi – have vowed to keep helping Federer evolve his game after his most recent loss at the US Open. A specific area that they may want to look at is to help Federer cope mentally in such crucial matches against opponents who have his number and while playing on courts that may not favour the Swiss as much as they favour his opponent.
If the objective of helping Federer just be himself in such matches and play committed tennis irrespective of the surface, score or opponent is addressed, I believe the rest will fall into place. Maybe a mental coach is the one ingredient missing in the recipe to create No. 18.
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- Federer criticizes young players: "I wish they volleyed more"
- Edberg & Federer, end of the partnership
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- Edberg: Federer is aging like fine wine
- Edberg: "The final decided by two points"
- Edberg: Roger's sneaky attack a surprise for me as well
- Edberg on Federer: "You still cannot count him out"
- Federer-Djokovic, preview of the US Open final
- Roger Federer at 15-Love