Federer: Lessons from 2014 19

Federer: Lessons from 2014

I have been trying to write about Roger Federer since the US Open. Every time I started, though, my inner voice said to wait. Something amazing is yet to happen. I am glad I waited because this weekend Roger sealed the deal for me on me casting my vote that he is the greatest player I have ever witnessed.

His Davis Cup performance may be the most amazing thing he has ever done.

In the fall I wrote but never sent out a blog on Roger’s return to the top of the game. Having fallen to #8 in the World, he made an extraordinary run starting with the finals of Wimbledon. He played another of the greatest matches of all times, pushing Novak to the very end, showing that age was just a story to him, a story that he didn’t believe. He then went on a tear in the summer hard court tournaments dominating, winning two out of three events.

It was during this run that he began to show a new part of his game. Adaptation. No longer able to win as he did when he was younger, staying back, attacking with the best combined serve and groundstrokes, he began to come to the net. He struggled for a while, learning along the way. Another new part: commitment to change. Despite being able to win against the majority of opponents, he had bigger targets in Djokovic and the new younger big hitters. He kept experimenting and dug deeply to find optimism and belief in the new approach.

He arrived at the US Open considered one of the two favorites.

It was early in the tournament, playing against three straight opponents who had serves that could have taken him down that he demonstrated the biggest change in his game. First needing to be patient while being unable to break serve, being in first sets where his higher skills couldn’t control the points, he became the latest version of Federer. This Federer used awareness of the situation to determine wich of his multitude of options would get the job done. He kept searching for the answer. He would try hitting shorter or longer, harder or softer, more spin or flatter, hard slice or floating slice, ripping returns or dumping them short. He kept experimenting. And at all times, he maintained his focus and relaxation.

Always accepting this isness of the match as it was unfolding. This is the situation I am in. I can not change what is going on. I can change what I am doing though.

The the match against Monfils. It was that night that I was sure I had seen him play his greatest match. No longer the Federer of the past, being bullied by a better athlete, more flexible, faster. A Monfils that put it all together as many thought he would when he first hit the tour. A Monfils that kept it together. It looked hopeless. Roger was playing well, but he was being outplayed. But he never quit. Not for a moment. He would find the way. And he did. And from two sets down, two match points down, he finally found answers. It was a match that was, for me, unforgettable.

So I thought I would write about it but my inner voice said to wait.

His run at the ATP tour World finals was a thing of beauty. Here he was in all his glory beating up on Raonic, Berdych and Wawrinka, fighting off match points against Stan in another monster battle.

Big disappointment that we didn’t get to see another final between Roger and Novak but an injured back forced Roger out.

The question that came up for many was, would Roger pull out of a match to be ready for a shot at winning the Davis Cup. Was his back bad enough for him to default. Well we know his history. Only three defaults in over 1000 matches. This guy comes to play. He loves to compete.

With the Davis Cup match beginning on Friday, Federer was unable to practice until Wednesday. On that day he couldn’t serve at more than 50% and was barely moving. Working with his physiotherapists it is certain that he did everything to get ready. On Friday he took the court to start the competition. His opponent. Monfils. A Frenchman. In France. Against a wounded Federer. Monfils played the match of his life and defeated a Federer that looked like his year was over. His dream of winning a Davis Cup with his Swiss mates was in doubt.

The way the scoring works in Davis Cup is that there are five matches over three days. Once a country wins three matches it is over. On Day 1, Wawrinka won and Federer lost. Saturday would be the doubles. The Swiss needed the doubles because it looked doubtful that Federer would be able to even play on the third day making winning three matches nearly impossible. Federer would have to play the doubles with Wawrinka, one day after struggling with his body.

With his partner playing solid tennis, Federer took over the doubles. He showed that he would go the distance for this team victory. He served, volleyed and crushed overheads. He kept connecting with Wawrinka in a special team effort. Federer played with heart.

With only one match to win with two singles matches scheduled for Sunday, Federer was scheduled to play Tsonga, a player who has been difficult for him and one he had lost to three months earlier. The ultimate professional who believes that preparation is as important as any other part of the game, Federer planned for the match. One hour before, Tsonga, injured, is replaced by Richard Gasquet. He too is no easy out.

The Fed express showed up. From the first forehand he was the master. Hitting the ball cleanly off both sides, ripping groundstrokes, serving full out and making over 70% of his first serves, covering the court like a teenager, we had to wonder how he could do it. After so much tennis in the last month. After injuring his back one week earlier. After playing two days while still trying to get his back loose. He played a match that was one of the most spectacular I have ever seen anyone play. His spirit, determination, persistence were all on full display.

Since he turned 30, people have doubted that he could still compete at the highest level. Those over 30 who still win in a young person’s game are rare. That is the story. Well, I am all about stories and, to me, that is a bad story. It is a story that sets a low bar. I am happy that Federer has a different story. A story of can and will do. A story that he has believed and, with that belief, has shown the doubters that at 33 and, probably, beyond, he can compete at the very top. He ended the year #2 in the World. He starts 2015 there. I still have hope that he will grab another Grand Slam title. I feel certain that the story he tells himself is that he will get another.

I once hear Agassi say “between the lines, there is no age.” I continue to compete with players 15-20 years younger than me. Sure, I have lost a step. I don’t serve quite as big. But I am smarter than I have ever been. I am inspired by Federer. I continually live the lessons that he showed throughout this, the greatest of his years. Adaptation. Commitment to change. Optimism. Belief. Patience. The search for answers. Experimentation. Focus. Relaxation. Acceptance. Never quit. Playing from the heart. Preparation. Spirit. Determination. Persistence.

Thank you Roger for these gifts.

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19 thoughts on “Federer: Lessons from 2014

  • Alex

    Bob. I like you. I really do. I like this article. I think it’s RARE to see someone so adaptable–we forget just how big of a deal it is to change your racquet size after so many years!!!

    I also think there’s another remarkable quality that you didn’t mention: HUMILITY.

    Having to go from #1, #2 to #8. Having to withstand year like 2013–and how humiliating that must have been, constantly doing interviews about why he just lost in the first or second round of an event. EMBARRASSING.

    But like you said, he didn’t give up. He never quit.

    And more than that, his psychology had to change. He was not the “big hitter,” like you said, who could dominate baseline rallies with his inside-out forehand. He no longer is able to straight-up INTIMIDATE his opponents. He is much more… humble! He realizes–and acknowledges–that sometimes he just “gets lucky.” Now, to you or I watching, we wouldn’t necessarily call it “luck,” per say, but…
    remember that one shot at Shanghai, I think also in the second or third round, when Leonardo Mayer had multiple match points against him, and he just clipped the net on match point–like a few centimeters from taking out Fed.

    Fed said that during his match with Djokovic, when he was about to win, he couldn’t not think how close he was to not being in that position. And, I agree, he has found a way to play SMARTER (like Agassi in his tennis “elder” years).

    I think most elite players quit when their level drops instead of going through the painful transition of EVOLVING their game. Federer didn’t, but can you recall all of the talk about him retiring a couple of years ago? It was a foregone conclusion that he was done! I hate to admit it, but even I… the quintessential Fed fan started to wonder if it was over, his dominance of the sport.

    And, perhaps it has. Perhaps he will never be the DOMINANT player that he once was.

    And, like a snake shedding its skin, this is Federer 2.0. This is a new Federer. Not as young. Not as dominant. But still as hungry. Smarter. Adaptive. More humble.

    Last thought: I used to think it was an elite tennis player’s SKILL that declined as he aged. Now, I see it differently. It’s not the skill or the “half-step” that is lost as players age. It’s RECOVERY.

    Even if Fed hadn’t gotten injured vs. Wawrinka near the end… he would have been CRUSHED by Djokovic the next day–because he had to play 17 HOURS later! And his body isn’t able to recover as quickly as a 20-something year old player.

    I think Fed would have won the U.S. Open this year–or had a great shot–if Cilic didn’t play out of his mind for two weeks, like a firework that is BRILLIANT but very short-lived.

    Recovery time. Recovery time. Recovery time.

    The tennis Gods don’t grant too much of that, and, at least for me, that is the next and most important next ADAPTATION, the final problem for Federer to SOLVE, is going to be RECOVERY if he is going to be able to seize that elusive 18th Slam.

  • John Sloan

    Fed’s game does seem to get better and better. His sliced backhand appears to have more bite and cut, his vollying under Edberg has improved as has the accuracy of his 1st and 2nd serve. Fed is throwing in more serve and vollying into his game plan and his tactical use of the “chip and charge” is outstanding. Yep, he really is the best tennis player on God’s earth and I salute him!

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