Thursday, July 25, 2013

That Sinking Feeling

What does the future hold for the Swiss maestro? Your guess is as good as mine...

(July 25, 2013)--In the wake of his 6-3, 6-4 loss to Daniel Brands in Gstaad on Thursday, there has never been a better time to speculate wildly about the future of Roger Federer than the present. Not that it will help make things any clearer, because, really, who the heck knows what is going to become of Federer in the next two to twenty-four months? There are myriad scenarios, and unless you've come back to July 25, 2013 from a time machine, the only hope is to play the guessing game.

Theories abound. The most common is that Federer's back is the main reason that he's struggling right now. If that's the case--and it appears to be, as just today Federer alluded to the fact that the back started to bother him last week in Hamburg again, and that he had considered pulling out of this week's event in Gstaad even as late as during the warm-up for Thursday's shocker--then there are more theories that abound.

Let's assume the back deserves sole responsibility for the fact that Federer has lost to players outside the top 50 in three consecutive tournaments then, shall we? If it's the case, then Federer is clearly doing a bad job of managing the injury. Clay is easiest on the joints, but with characteristic long rallies it's a grueling surface on the lungs and the muscles, so it makes very little sense that Federer would choose to play extra events this summer on a clay court when his back has been the single thing that is plaguing him the most this season. Why not rest instead, head to the beach with the kids, get lots of therapy, lots of rest and relaxation?

Clearly, in Federer's mind, the back is not the biggest piece missing from the puzzle. If it was, then how do we explain the racquet change and the sudden urge to pick up and take wild cards into Hamburg and Gstaad?

Federer hasn't talked about the injury too much of late, but he was wearing kinesio tape in Hamburg, as super-sleuth Courtney Nguyen of Beyond the Baseline has pointed out, even tweeting the photo as proof. And he did talk about it today, saying ""I've had serious problems with the back, I had to get some anti-inflammatories last week in Hamburg due to the back pain... It was so tough to play and move out there today."

He added: "I'll just have to take treatment and see how it all goes... My back felt OK enough, but not enough to play at 100 percent. I knew coming into the match that it would be a tough one. I didn't decide to play until after the warm-up, that's what a close call it was."

Serious problems? Not at 100 percent? Really? And so you play two tournaments when you should addressing the issue most directly related to your recent slump? It's just too hard to pin down the rationale.

If the back issues are truly the catalyst for the rapid drop-off in Federer's game, then the Swiss maestro needs to get a grip and realize that the answer might be to play less, not more. Perhaps he should take a page from the Rafa playbook and take the rest of the year off? Spend some time with the new racquet and work on visualizing the Roger Federer who isn't done winning Grand Slams. He's only 31 and soon to be 32, not 34 and on his last legs, so why not address the problem holistically, rather than desperately?

But it appears that Federer is conflicted, caught between wanting to race out there and win some titles to rid the taste of losing from his mouth, and wanting to rest the back so he can finally play the game he wants to play (with the serve and the movement that he needs to have). It's admirable that he's seeking change, willing to enter these draws and accept these bitter defeats, all in the name of regaining some semblance of the regal game that we've all come to know and admire him for. But something about it smacks of desperation, rather than determination. Maybe Federer is like the rest of us, wildly speculating on what will become of him in the next six months, frantically feeling despair with each poor performance, and trying too hard every chance he gets to turn things around?

It's so hard to really get a sense of how much of Federer's issues are about the back and how much of it is about a general sense of decline that happens to all players. Is Federer's body built for tennis after 30 in the same way that Tommy Haas's is? Can Federer come to grips with reality and still truly love to play the game without his magical powers so readily at his disposal?

Now that he's fallen so far so fast in recent months (in reality it hasn't been that bad, but when compared to the Federer of old it has been alarming), we will get a chance to see if Federer really embraces the role of being the underdog as he has said he would. He might this summer, but if he can't end his slump by the end of the year--either in New York or London--what hope will he hold for 2014?

It's easy to speculate, but harder to know. Not since he was a young unnacomplished lad have we known so little of what is going to happen to Roger Federer in the immediate future. It could be time to say goodbye or it could be time to prove to everybody just how wrong they were about Roger Federer once again.

Only time will tell, whether Federer's half-empty glass is about to run dry or be full again.

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