The King Is Dead
The Winter - and Spring - of Federer's Discontent
Jolly Roger is jolly no more. The Winter of his discontent (Australian Open) may eventually lead to a glorious Summer (Wimbledon), but in the meanwhile it's May Day panic time as he continues to Spring Backwards instead of forward.
Last night I stayed up into the wee small ones to watch tennis icon Roger Federer lose the Hamburg Masters final in jaw-dropping fashion to his arch-nemesis Rafael Nadal, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 3-6. I say jaw-dropping because Nadal remains the irritating fly in Federer's ointment that never goes away, no matter how hard or how often he takes a swat at him. An aggressive Federer was playing perfectly in the first set, taking the ball early and coming to net often as he cruised to a 5-1 lead with set point before losing seven straight games to go down 5-7,0-1. Wow. Federer then won four straight games and led the second set 5-2 before Nadal forced a tiebreak, which Roger held on to win 7-3.
But the blown first set and the Herculean effort needed to win the second ensured that this was not fated to be Roger's day in his vain attempt to defend his Hamburg title - the one in which he beat Nadal in three sets last year for his lone clay-court win against Rafa and the only major clay title Nadal had not won (and one of only two clay court defeats ever for Nadal - the other was in Monte Carlo a few weeks back to Juan Carlos Ferrero - in over 180 matches). I turned off the set at this point, knowing it was all over save the shouting. The third set and the title went to Nadal, 6-3.
This crushing, soul-sapping defeat - eerily similar to Federer's 5-7, 5-7 collapse against the Spaniard two weeks ago in the Monte Carlo final (where Federer broke Nadal to lead 4-3 in the first set and raced to a 4-0 lead in the second) - once again emphasized the now obvious conclusion that Federer is mentally and physically spent trying to deal with the Nadal challenge. Against Nadal on clay (where the bounce is unpredictable and thus the margin of error for taking the ball early is minuscule), Federer is as helpless as George W. Bush in front of a microphone. And, given the way Nadal continues to rise from the dead and always force that extra shot or tiring rally regardless of how close his opponent is to the finish line, it's clear that Federer will never win the French Open as long as Nadal is alive - not unless injury or someone else takes him out. But, after watching Nadal shatter World No. 3 Novak Djokovic's confidence in Hamburg's semifinals (where, like Federer in Monte Carlo and Hamburg, Djokovic raced to a commanding lead before squandering it 5-7, 6-2, 2-6), I doubt even the young Serb whiz kid can stop Nadal from winning his fourth consecutive title at Roland Garros. (Plus, I don't think Novak has the mental toughness yet to be a consistent champion; I mean, he recently retired from a match because of a "sore throat"! You'd have to remove Nadal's or Federer's esophagus before they'd retire from a match!)
Everything is going right for Nadal right now (after all, it's the height of the clay court season). But something is clearly wrong with Roger Federer, the world's reigning No. 1 and probable all-time best tennis player. Perhaps he has nothing left to prove, with pundits basically taking it for granted that he will soon overtake Pete Sampras' record 14 Grand Slam single titles (Federer has already has 12 in the bag). Moreover, his motivation - and perhaps his No. 1 standing - is suddenly in doubt as 2008 is turning into Federer's worst season since he became world No. 1 in February 2004. With almost half the season gone, he has won only one (one!) title this year (a relatively minor title at a clay-court tournament in Portugal), has racked up eight losses (including the Rome quarterfinals last week and the Hamburg final last night) and is no longer losing just to the usual handful of suspects - the mighty Nadals, Nalbandians and Canases of the circuit who have his number and the occasional upset at the hands of upcoming upstarts like Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic - but to mere mortals like Czech journeyman Radek Stepanak (World #25). Radek Stapanak! The sweaty-swarthy Ivan Lendl lookalike who lost to Vince "Ain't Afraid of Ya" Spadea at the Australian Open!
Blame it on a bout of mononucleosis, ennui, problems at home (his girlfriend looks increasing aloof in the stands), or even self-doubt that he is still truly the King of men's tennis, but I think the Swiss string maestro is in the midst of a perplexing existential crisis. The 2008 Federer storyline has gone from intriguing melodrama (his rivalry with nemesis/No. 2 Rafael Nadal and his Quixotic pursuit of a French Open title - the only one to elude him so far) to all-out Shakespearean tragedy. Think Lear in his end days.
He has been overshadowed this year both by Nadal and player-of-the-year-so-far Novak Djokovic, who have three titles apiece - with Djokovic winning the Australian Open, the Indian Wells Masters and last week's Rome Masters to lead the annual points race. I can't see Nadal losing the French Open, and on the fast and hard surfaces coming up at the Wimbledon and the US Open grand slams, Nadal and Djokovic are no longer in awe of Roger Dodger.
Let's just hope Roger regains his mental equilibrium. Maybe the lure of potentially winning Wimbledon and the US Open, and thus tying Sampras' career Slams record, is enough incentive. But it still won't make it any easier to swallow the humble pie he's been fed this year by Nadal and a handful of pretenders to the World No. 1 throne.