(July 17, 2013)--As the saying goes, it's not about the racquet, it's about the player swinging the racquet, but in Roger Federer's case the decision to go with a larger-sized frame (at least on a trial basis) this week in Hamburg is more than a means to an end, it is also a symbol of a long-awaited philosophical sea change in the man himself.
Federer has been unequivocally stubborn in this regard, but after a second-round loss at Wimbledon that didn't sit well with him, he's elected to finally embrace the change that many pundits and armchair tennis players have recommended he make for years.
Funny as it sounds, Federer has been through this racket before. The shanks and mishits, the difficulty living up to expectations. Way back in 2002, when Federer was playing with the 85-square-inch head of the Wilson Pro Staff, the unproven yet promising man who would one day become the Swiss Maestro sought a larger frame to combat—you guessed it—shanks and mishits.
Tennis writer Miguel Seabra chronicled Federer's racket change in a 2008 piece that was published at tennis.com.
“Federer's transition to the pro tour was fairly rapid, and by the end of 2001 he was closing in on the top 10," wrote Seabra. "But despite a landmark victory over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, he had yet to make it past the quarterfinal of a grand slam. The following spring, he made a bold decision right in the middle of the clay-court season switching to a 90-square-inch version of the Pro Staff. The larger sweet spot allowed him to hit fewer balls off the frame and reduce his unforced errors."
The rest, as they say, is history. And the rewriting of said history...Federer would win Hamburg two weeks later. Fast forward 11 years and 17 Grand Slams, and here we are at the familiar crossroads again.
Does Federer's decision mean that greener pastures lie ahead? If we choose history to be our guide, then quite possibly.
“I switched from 85 to 90 back in 2002 just before I won Hamburg,” Federer told Seabra. “That was for me a big move because I was really shanking a lot of balls.”
Federer has shanked plenty of balls—the casual observer would say an ever increasing amount, though there is no official statistic in tennis—since turning 30, and even though his remarkable, regal game came together magnificently at Wimbledon in 2012 when he won his seventeenth Grand Slam title, there has been audible clamor for several years that the tiny 90-square-inch racquet-head that Federer uses is making the difficult task of keeping up with his younger, fitter rivals downright Herculean.
As for why Federer didn't make the switch sooner, and how many more titles and Grand Slams he could have won if he had (and how many less airmailed backhands that land back near where the ballboys and line judges sit), we'll never really know.
But now, as he begins the back half of a year that has been disappointing at best, Federer has commendably decided to embark on a new journey with a new stick.
It's a beautiful thing. To know that the man who will probably go down as the greatest tennis player of all-time when it's all said and done is fully committed at this stage of his career to finding a way out of his current malaise is uplifting. It's yet another sign that Federer's love for the game has not dwindled, that he's not about to pack it in just because of one mystifying loss at Wimbledon. Quite the contrary, he's going to swallow his pride and search for solutions, knowing full well that there are no guarantees or easy fixes.
Maybe he'll find the new stick doesn't give him the feel he wants, or that it's too difficult to maneuver. Maybe the shanks will still be there, and the tough losses too. None of that matters right now. All that does matter is that Federer is dead set on reversing course on a difficult season.
As much as we want to turn this into a technical conversation about racquet head acceleration, sweet spots, string beds, and feel, the fact of the matter is that the discussion should begin and end with one word: Change.
Federer, right now, has the courage to change. He's not content with a second-round loss at Wimbledon, he's not content with being No. 5 in the world for the first time in over a decade, and he's itching to do something about it—and fast.
So he's pulled the car off the road and parked it in Germany, where he'll try to mount an assault against the new regime. He'll be 32 in less than a month, but if things go as planned, he'll feel like he's 21 again, back when he switched racquets, won Hamburg and took tennis world by its tail and shook it violently for several years.
Maybe he'll fall in love with the new stick and it will put a second wind in his sails.
Maybe he'll smash it in the clay during today's match with Daniel Brands, walk off the court, and say “I'm never coming back.”
No matter what happens, the real story here is that Federer is still hungry to win, and for those who aren't quite ready to deal with tennis beyond Federer, that is a beautiful thing.