Shadows and Light — The Compromises of an Aging Athlete
Yesterday, Roger Federer captured his record-extending sixteenth title in a Grand Slam tournament, winning the Australian Open in a one-sided match against the latest pasty-faced Brit pretender, Andy Murray. (Here‘s a good summary of the match.) Murray, a Scot, is an inventive and amazingly mobile player, and he’ll soon win one of these big ones: probably either the U.S. or the Australian Open (the suffocating pressure at Wimbledon might be too much to overcome, at least for awhile). But watching Federer cruise to yet another title, one had to ask: “Will this never end?”
It probably will, and sometime soon. But these days, with rival Rafael Nadal’s career clearly in peril because of the persistent injuries his relentless style and body type make inevitable, it’s easy to see Federer as unstoppable. And part of the reason is that the past year has seen a new Federer: a man who realizes that his time at the top is limited, and that he can’t simply assume he’s going to win every match on his unsurpassed talent alone. Compromises have been made; some wise and inevitable, others disturbing (if slightly amusing).
Over the past year, Federer has added the strategic drop shot to his already formidable arsenal. For years, he’d eschewed it as a desperate, almost avulsive, way to end a point. Now he uses it against the Legion of Baseline Heroes, who stand back and blast away. Throw in a drop shot and watch their comfort level drop. He’s also added a violent second-serve return, no longer able to rely on his sliced or chipped backhand to get the point back on neutral terms. He didn’t do much of this sort of returning against Murray (and when he tried, it rarely worked), but the threat of it can have the desired effect of unsettling the opponent.
These innovations are smart, and, if anything, one might ask why Federer didn’t try them sooner in his career. The answer, of course, is that he didn’t need to.With the glaring exception of Nadal (mostly on clay), Federer was unbeatable. From 2005-2007, he barely lost any matches at all.
Now, it’s different. The general public, to the extent it follows tennis at all, looks to the four Grand Slam tournaments (mentioned above, plus the French Open) as the measure of success; there, Federer continues at his insane level — 23 consecutive semifinals, and 8 consecutive finals, reached; an average of more than two of these majors won every year for the past eight years; and so on. But Federer has been mortal for the past few years at all of the other tournaments. He now saves and marshals his best efforts.
Less savory are some of the other things Federer has been willing to do in order to keep winning. In his quarter-final match against the human ball-striking machine named Nikolay Davydenko, Federer was in deep trouble: Down a set and a break of serve, and almost down another. He rallied and won (of course), but he used a kind of perceptive gamesmanship to do so. After the first set, he took a bathroom break. This is permissible, and a regular practice of many players. (Even Venus Williams took such a break at this year’s Aussie Open, and I can’t recall seeing her do that before.) But Federer has long decried gamesmanship of any kind, calling out the whiny Novak Djokovic for his “injury” timeouts. Of course, when I heard why Federer took the time out, I was too impressed by his perceptive abilities to criticize him. Speaking to ESPN’s Darren Cahill shortly after the match, Federer said he was trying to survive until the sun went down; the match had been conducted under a late-afternoon sun, and Federer had said (almost poetically) that the ball was “half in shadow, half in light” so that he could only see half of it. Someone could construct a musical suite on this theme.
But what about Federer’s sophisticated mind-game (not really “trash talking”, to be precise) against Murray in the days before the match? Some of it was just funny: In the interview after his semifinal with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer said that the British hadn’t won a Grand Slam “in like 150,000″ years (74 is the slightly more accurate number). But in press conferences before the final, Federer turned up the heat: Murray would feel the pressure; It would be important for Murray — but not for him — to win the first set; Murray’s head-to-head winning record against Federer (which now stands at 6-5) was constructed when Federer “wasn’t at [his] very best”; Murray had cratered during the previous major final encounter (at the 2008 U.S. Open, also won by Federer in straight sets).
The tactics seem to have worked, but maybe they weren’t necessary. Federer enjoys amazing crowd support everywhere he goes, even against home-town heroes. This, too, helps him win. Is his new approach a risk to this capital of good will? Perhaps. And to what lengths will he go to remain on top? We’ll see. But these latest actions by the great Federer remind us that elite athletes will do what they need, even if the rest of us don’t like or understand it. Just watch and enjoy his sublime tennis, while it lasts.