Why Roger Federer is a flawed genius

Joe Karsay Roar Rookie

By Joe Karsay, Joe Karsay is a Roar Rookie

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    Roger FedererAs a huge fan of Roger Federer, I regret having to write this article. Federer is the most talented player I have ever seen – my hero. His record would suggest that he is the greatest ever. However, he does not have one vital ingredient that most champions possess.

    He is not a fighter. Unlike other recent greats, Sampras, Agassi and Nadal, Federer does not play his best tennis in tight matches. He is a front-runner who finds it hard to scrap and come from behind.

    In his early career Federer was identified as someone with a huge amount of potential and extraordinary technical talent, but he was an easy beat. He was mentally flaky and at times he would appear to lose interest in matches when he fell behind on the scoreboard.

    The best example of mental fragility in the young Federer was when Hewitt came back from two sets down to win in five and knock Switzerland out of the Davis Cup in 2003.

    Federer was a late bloomer, but when he did bloom his game (always beautiful) went to the next level. Maturity combined with his pure shot production brought consistency to his game, and for a period he was virtually unbeatable.

    His dominance in his first few years as number one was magnified by the fact that there was daylight between himself and the next rung of players. He played near flawless tennis to crush Lleyton Hewitt 6-0, 7-6, 6-0 in the 2004 US Open final and went through Roddick 6–2, 7–6(2), 6–4 in the 2005 Wimbledon final.

    Federer got in the habit of winning easily. Some would say a good habit to have but a challenger was always going to emerge, someone who could push Federer and expose not just the weaknesses in his game (if any) but also the depths of his character.

    The only person who provided any resistance in these years was a young Rafa on clay. In 2006 and 2007 Federer had the chance to hold all four majors by beating Rafa in the final of the French Open. He lost both times despite winning a set in each match and having several good opportunities. There were signs in these matches that the fragility of the young Federer still lingered although most people put it down to the Spanish bull being himself unbeatable on the red surface he had grown up on.

    Since 2008 Federer’s dominance of men’s tennis has been eroded and I would suggest his mental weakness exposed. I realise that some people will find it a hard argument to accept – that a player with 16 Grand Slam titles to his name could be mentally soft. The evidence is mounting.

    The match that most people describe as the best Grand Slam final of the modern era was perhaps Federer’s darkest hour. He had beaten Rafa in the two previous Wimbledon finals. Grass is Federer’s best surface and at that time was considered Rafa’s worst. It suited Federer for many reasons, primarily because he, unlike most of his contemporaries, could serve volley when he needed to. In fact, in his early years Federer quite often serve-volleyed on grass. It is a surface which rewards the dominant server who can come in and finish off the big points quickly. Sampras had been a master of it. Its low bounce also neutralised Rafa’s biggest weapon, his heavily top spun forehand.

    The Fed took the first two sets 6-4, 6-4 and most people assumed he was on his way to yet another Wimbledon title. At the time we did not know that on the other side of the net was the toughest, most determined and fittest player the game has ever seen. In many ways the Spaniard is Federer’s mental antithesis.

    Rafa ended up taking the match 9-7 in the fifth set. The match should have been Federer’s. He had chances to beat Rafa, as he has in all their big clashes. The common theme being that Rafa concentrates better and attacks more on the big points. Many believe Federer would have won this match if he had the courage to serve volley deep into the fifth set.

    It was the second time Roger had squandered a two-sets-to-love lead. It’s the type of loss that you don’t recover from quickly, nor your rivals forget. In 2009 Roger again lost to Nadal in five sets in the Australian open final. It is a match that will be remembered for the uncontrollable tears that ran down Federer’s face when he was presented the runner’s up plate by his idle Rod Laver. We can only speculate why Federer wept that night. The tears themselves were revealing. Federer is a gentleman in the true sense of that word. If he was ruthless like Sampras he would have been the complete player.

    In the last eighteen months it has not only been Rafa who has had some big wins over Federer at the Grand Slams. Novak Djokovich beat him in last year’s US Open semi after surviving a match point. Federer fell to the wiry young Serb again on Thursday night, this time more meekly.

    Federer can be a frustrating man to support. There is a palpable difference in intensity between he and Nadal or Djokovich prior to big points. You can see his opponents concentrating yet harder and stealing themselves for what is to come, emotion pouring out of every pore, whereas the Swiss master stays calm… too calm.

    Federer is not good at arresting the momentum when matches swing against him. Plan A is that he is too talented for his opponent and there is no Plan B. His unwillingness to use his net play and variety against his younger more powerful opponents is curious at times. His single handed backhand (a thing of great beauty, like an antique) has become a weakness.

    Federer’s impeccable CV will be complete if he can beat Rafa in hard fought five set Grand Slam final, but his time is running out.

    Latest Post: 2 Feb 2011 – Roger Federer is merely in transition

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    The Crowd Says (104)

    • January 31st 2011 @ 7:13am
      ohtani's jacket said | January 31st 2011 @ 7:13am | ! Report

      Mentally weak is Andy Murray in a Grand Slam final, not Roger Federer losing in five sets. Because Federer plays a largely offensive game, he can’t grind out matches defensively like a Nadal or Djokovic. If his forehand goes, he’s prone to all sorts of errors. Against lower ranked opponents, he finds a way to win, but he needs his backhand and forehand in perfect working order against the top seeds.

      SInce 2008, Federer has entered a phase of his career where he has had to fight more than he did from 2003-07. If you look at his Grand Slam victories since 2008, or even the finals he’s played since then, there have been a number of tough matches along the way. If you think he can’t fight, go back and examine his French Open/Wimbledon double from 2009.

      Having said that, he’s lost a few matches from winnable positions and you could probably argue that Sampras and Nadal (in recent times) wouldn’t have.

      • January 31st 2011 @ 7:22am
        aceagain said | January 31st 2011 @ 7:22am | ! Report

        Federer is getting old and the young pups are nipping at his heels, which is to be expected.
        I like Mats Wilander’s interpretation of Murray’s problem: he’s immature. Letting loose with vulgar language reveals a weak self control, and if there is anything Federer (and Raonic) has taught us, self control is often the key deciding factor at this level of super athlete.

    • January 31st 2011 @ 7:17am
      Davel Frazier said | January 31st 2011 @ 7:17am | ! Report

      In 2007 French Open, Federer lost the final because he played with groin and back injuries against Nadal without revealing his handicap to the public. It was only after he withdrew from the Halle tournament that the organizers announced his injury days later. So while Nadal makes a public spectacle of his hamstring injury to get sympathy when he loses the Australian Open quarterfinal in straight sets to David Ferrer, Roger Federer gets no sympathy because he played as a warrior without whining about his pain while losing to nadal.
      In 2008 Australian Open, Federer played and reached the semifinals despite suffering from mononucleosis and food poisoning that caused him to be hospitalized. A few months later in 2008, despite struggling to regain his fitness and game, Federer played Wimbledon despite not being 100%. Contrary to what you claim, Wimbledon in 2008 was Nadal’s second best surface — Wimbledon got the name “green clay” because the grass surface had been slowed down and become higher bouncing compared to the days of Pete Sampras. Indeed, in 2003 Nadal was the youngest player to reach the 3rd round at Wimbledon since Boris Becker because Nadal’s topspin could now work on this green clay. Again, contrary to what you claim, at 2008 Wimbledon final, a mononucleosis-compromised Federer was actually down two sets to love and headed to defeat when his sheer willpower and fighting spirit fought back to win the third and fourth sets to level the match two sets all. Nadal barely won the fifth set by luck in darkness. After five hours, only a few points separated them.
      In 2009 Australian Open, Federer played the final while suffering back injury, and still Nadal needed five sets to beat an injured Federer. Federer wept after the match because of the severe pain and the extra hard work he had put in to fight back to form after suffering mononucleosis and back injury in 2008.
      Federer does not have to beat Nadal in a five set final because Federer shows up in the finals of Nadal’s best surface (clay) far more often than Nadal shows up in the finals of Federer’s best surface (hardcourts) because Nadal often loses on hardcourt surfaces to lower ranked players. Nadal often blames his losses on injuries.
      At 2011 Australian Open, Novak Djokovic’s coach Marian Vadja admitted that Djokovic played the “match of his life” to beat Federer. The match was straight sets but was very close. Anything less, Federer would have beaten him. Federer did not have his best tennis, but he was far more a winner and fighter than Pete Sampras ever was.
      You either are a federer basher pretending to be a huge fan of Roger, or you do not know your facts and understand what you are talking about.

      • Roar Guru

        January 31st 2011 @ 11:05am
        SportsFanGC said | January 31st 2011 @ 11:05am | ! Report

        Davel your post sounds like you are making excuses for the losses that Fed had against Nadal while in the very same breath saying its not ok for Nadal to use the excuse of injury which at times in his career has set him back.

        It would be very hard to argue that there is any current mens tennis player in the world as mentally tough as Nadal. He has a far superior head to head record against Fed (and may be one of the few that actually does) and has beaten him on all surfaces including his favourite tournament Wimbledon. Fed does have a mental block about playing Nadal because he knows that he is going to be aggressive from start to finish and many points that would be winners against lesser players Nadal sends back past him with interest.

        Having said that I don’t really see how someone can be mentally weak and win 16 Grand Slams (at least one on all surfaces), the pressure would continue to build the more he won and you would have to have some mental toughness to keep winning.

        Andy Murray on the other hand could probably learn to look at the approach that both Nadal and Fed take into a final of a Grand Slam. Making 3 finals and not winning a set is pretty ordinary

        • January 31st 2011 @ 3:25pm
          Tony said | January 31st 2011 @ 3:25pm | ! Report

          SportsFanMelb, unfortunately you see it as making excuses for Federer. However, Davel made excellent points that give context and perspective to some of Federer’s famous losses to Nadal which the author jumped to the incorrect conclusions were due to “mental weakness” and “the fragility of the young Federer still lingered”.

          In the link, scroll down to “Roger needs time” to read Rene Stauffer’s interview with Pierre Paganini (fitness and conditioning coach to Federer and the Swiss Davis Cup team) on Federer’s mononucleosis and food poisoning during the 2008 Australian Open and how it affected Federer’s 2008 season.
          http://tt.tennis-warehouse.com/showthread.php?t=219203

          The interview was done on the eve of the 2008 US Open, which Federer won. It is a testament to Federer’s determination, fighting spirit, physical fitness and mental toughness to overcome a serious viral illness that often ends athletic careers (e.g., Mario Ancic). It is also a testament to Federer’s character that he did not publicize and sensationalize what he went through that year, despite the negative publicity from ignorant pundits over his losses at the 2008 Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. Nadal, on the other hand, made such a big deal of a minor viral infection at Doha this year through which he kept on playing.

          Even though Federer suffered mononucleosis, he did not withdraw from the 2008 Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. Even though Federer had back and leg injuries he did not withdraw from 2010 Wimbledon. Federer showed up to fight and showed courage in taking those losses.

          Nadal voluntarily withdrew from 2009 Wimbledon claiming he was not 100% just hours after the tough draw came out, even though he was able to play exhibition matches against Hewitt and Wawrinka just days before. It really is Nadal who showed cowardice, fragility, weakness and lack of determination in avoiding potential losses when he does not feel 100%.

          If Nadal’s career was set back by his injuries, it is his own fault. Most of Nadal’s injuries are tendonitis (inflammation of tendon due to overuse). These are not career-threatening injuries and usually heal with a few weeks’ rest. Such tendonitis injuries are caused by the physically stressful playing style that Nadal voluntarily chooses to use. If any other player played like Nadal’s style they would probably suffer similar injuries.

        • January 31st 2011 @ 3:45pm
          Tony said | January 31st 2011 @ 3:45pm | ! Report

          SportsFanMelb,
          Federer is mentally tougher than Nadal (it’s a myth that Nadal is mentally tougher than Federer).

          The mental toughness of Nadal and Federer is shown by their performance at the four Grand Slam tournaments (majors). If Nadal was so mentally tough, he would have won more major matches during his best years and reached more finals on all surfaces. The statistics favour Federer even more when you add the World Tour Finals (the next most important tournament in tennis after the Grand Slam events).

          – Since 2005 (the year that Nadal won his first major), Federer has won 12 majors to Nadal’s 9 majors. Federer also won 161 major matches to Nadal’s 118 major matches.

          – Since 2008 (during Nadal’s best years and Federer’s worst years), even a subpar Federer still won 75 major matches compared to Nadal’s 68 matches. Federer reached 8 major finals (won 4) to Nadal’s 6 major finals (won 6). Nadal reached only one US Open final and one Australian Open final. Yet during this period Federer reached two French Open finals!

          As well, Federer has faced and defeated more top ten players than Nadal did.

          You can tell the character of a player by his losses. Federer has lost less matches than Nadal (in Federer’s best years from 2004 to 2007, he lost an average of only 6 matches per year while Nadal has lost twice as much between 2008 to 2010). Federer often shows greater fight when he loses than Nadal does when he loses — the final sets of Federer’s lost matches are closer than the final sets of Nadal’s lost matches.

          You claim to read minds when you imagine that “Fed does have a mental block about playing Nadal.” Trust me, you have no idea what happens inside another person’s head.

          The Federer-Nadal head-to-head record is misleading because. over half of their matches were played on Nadal’s favourite clay (which makes up only 25% of their schedule) because Federer is superior at reaching clay finals while Nadal is inferior at reaching hardcourt finals. Both players have beaten each other on all surfaces (Federer has beaten Nadal twice on clay in Masters Series events).

          The Federer-Nadal head to head record was rationally analyzed by the Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik (who is the Yale university-trained mathematician who analyzes statistics in major sports and other issues): “Nadal’s shaky history on hard courts is the best argument against using the two players’ head-to-head record to judge their rivalry. Nadal has won 14 of their 22 meetings, but 12 of those meetings came on clay, where Nadal won 10 times. Federer is 2-1 on grass and 4-3 on hard courts. (Federer’s all-surface excellence at the peak of his career may best be encapsulated by his reaching the final of an astonishing 17 consecutive tournaments through Toronto in 2006.) During Nadal’s reign on clay, Federer has been the second-best player on the surface, reaching 11 of the 31 finals reached by Nadal. Federer’s two wins in those 11 finals may seem skimpy — until you consider that Nadal is a perfect 21-0 in clay finals against players other than Federer. Nadal’s improvement on grass and hard courts makes him a far better overall player than he once was, yet may also paradoxically diminish his head-to-head edge over Federer — if, as all tennis fans hope, 2011 and beyond bring many more Federer-Nadal finals.”

          Google “The Federer-Nadal Rivalry, Rekindled” by “Carl Bialik” to read rest of his factual and intelligent analysis.

          • Roar Guru

            February 1st 2011 @ 9:15am
            SportsFanGC said | February 1st 2011 @ 9:15am | ! Report

            Tony don’t forget that this is an opinion site, I was simply commenting from what I saw happening during the Fed v Nadal games of the previous few years.

            Also I never claimed to read people’s minds as you allude to, from the outside looking at the rivalry it seems that Fed can’t get past Nadal at the moment and it probably did not help when he finally lost to Nadal on Grass.

            If you are so concerned about Nadal winning the majority of his games on clay against Fed then will you also look at Fed against any other mens top 10 player on grass because I guarantee he would have a great majority of wins on that surface also. But you would not discount that head-to-head record would you. All players have a surface they like/suits their game, Nadal and Fed are no different.

            You mentioned the players best years, Nadal is 24 years old so I would suggest that the best tennis is yet to come from him and he already has bagged 9 grand slams. You would have to concede that Fed has had his dominant patch and being closer to 30 is heading towards the twilight while Nadal, Djokovic etc are heading to their peaks.

    • January 31st 2011 @ 7:19am
      aceagain said | January 31st 2011 @ 7:19am | ! Report

      The word “genius” refers to the intellectually gifted.
      Federer is a gifted athlete, perhaps the greatest tennis player of a generation, but he is not a genius.
      Remember, a dictionary is a writer’s closest friend.

      • January 31st 2011 @ 3:47pm
        Ragz999 said | January 31st 2011 @ 3:47pm | ! Report

        @aceagain, I really doubt if you have got the genius part right here.
        Just to refer to the literary meaning apart from anything else:-

        Genius: “exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability”

        So now i think you would not doubt the application of the word genius here with respect to his magical ability with the tennis racquet. Its indeed true however that other players are catching up , but I think that has got nothing to do with his ability to bounce back in a grand slam. Its more to do with his age and perhaps his hunger to go out there and win grand slams. He is a touch slower than before and opponents like djokovic are a touch faster. these reasons along with his not being able to close out the big points contributed to his downfall in the semis. It happens in tennis and just because of that you can beat the hell out of a guy who has for such a long time dominated men’s tennis.

        However I think he still has got a lot in him to show his fans and his critics alike. just that he really needs to start believing in himself and probably train a bit more. But apart from that as far as i am concerned, form is temporary class is permanent.

    • January 31st 2011 @ 7:28am
      James PH said | January 31st 2011 @ 7:28am | ! Report

      Well first of all, there is a mistake here in that Federer “lost” the first two sets in the 2008 Wimbledon final and came back to win the next two sets. It also rained at various intervals in that match and any bit of water that gets onto the grass surface now makes it alot slower than what it used to be, hence favouring Nadal. To a certain extent, I do agree with your point about Federer’s lack of fight during the latter stages of the match. E.g. 2009 Australian Open final where he won the 4th set and lost the final set 6-2 (if i remember correctly) and Nadal had just come off a 5 setter against Verdasco. E.g. 2009 US Open final, where Federer also lost the final set 6-2 to Del Potro and also the following year when he lost to Djokovic in 5 sets. But lets remember that those three players he’s lost to are all BIG hitters of the ball. They produce alot more power and spin then Federer does and probably why he has to change up his game to prolong his title chase.

    • January 31st 2011 @ 8:02am
      Bobby said | January 31st 2011 @ 8:02am | ! Report

      In 2008 wimbledon Nadal won first 2 sets.Federer won 3rd and in 4th set he saved match points.Have you followed tennis?.Federer fought hard but Nadal was better on that day.Federer has even come back against Nadal when 2 sets down in Miami masters 2005 final.Even in 2007 wimbledon against Nadal,he won it narrowly ,match going to 5th set in which 4 break points were saved by Federer.Laver may be idle now,which he is not,but he is still Federer`s idol.Rather a very flawed article.

    • January 31st 2011 @ 8:08am
      Genuine Realist said | January 31st 2011 @ 8:08am | ! Report

      I was going to make the correction on Wimbledon 2008, but so many others already have.

      For the record, Federer was down two sets against Berdych in the 2009 Australian Open. He was down two sets to Haas in the French Open. He was behind 2 to 1 to Del Potro in the same event. At the 2005 US Open, he was down a break to Agassi in the third set after splitting the first two. At the Australian Open in 2006, he was down set and break to Bagdhatis.

      Tennis is a game, Even genius players lose matches.

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