Roger Federer has had a few stretches in his career in which decline looked to be steep and imminent. 2008 was the first of these patches. Novak Djokovic rolled Roger in the Australian Open semifinal round. Federer was beaten soundly by Mardy Fish in the semifinal round of Indian Wells. Nadal thrashed Federer in the French Open final. After a gut wrenching loss to Nadal in the Wimbledon final, Federer dropped matches to Gilles Simon and Ivo Karlovic. In the quarterfinal round of the 2008 Olympic games, Federer lost for the first (and last?) time to James Blake. Things seemed off from Federer’s 2004-2007 form. Still, even before Federer won an Olympic gold in doubles with Stanislas Wawrinka, won his 5th consecutive US Open title and won Basel in 2008, Federer had posted a 17-3 Grand Slam record with two Grand Slam runner-up finishes as well as titles in Estoril and Halle. To this point in 2013, Federer has posted a 10-3 Grand Slam record and one title at Halle. Many players ranked in the lower portion of the top 10 and below might like to have Federer’s 2013 record, but this is uncharted territory for the Swiss. Some might say 2011 looked grim for Roger, but once again he was 20-4 in Grand Slam play in 2011 and won a slate of indoor events to end 2011 including the Paris Indoor and World Tour Finals for a record 6th time.
2013 has been to this point worse than his record in 2003 when Roger broke through with his first Grand Slam title. Roger led the tour in titles in 2003. That is not going to happen in 2013. Federer did post a modest, by his standards, 13-3 Grand Slam record one decade ago. Roger may win more than 13 Grand Slam matches in 2013, but unless he wins the US Open it will still fall short of his 2003 mark in terms of quality. Roger Federer is 31. It is 10 years since his first Grand Slam title. These are realities. It is ridiculous to think Roger can turn back the clock and be the dominant number 1 player in the world. In all honesty, I don’t think he cares about his ranking now that he captured the total weeks at number 1 record to book end his consecutive weeks at number 1 record. However, I don’t think this means Roger is done being a factor in tennis.
Two Examples: Sampras and Haas
Pete Sampras won the 2002 US Open when he was the same age Roger was in 2012 as the 17th seed. Many things broke in favor of Sampras in that event. Andy Roddick was not 100% in his quarterfinal match with Sampras. Sjeng Shalken achieved something great in reaching the semifinal round, but he was not an intimidating obstacle for Sampras. Andre Agassi knocked off Lleyton Hewitt who at that time had Sampras’ number. All of those factors were part of Sampras’ last run, but Pete also played exceptionally well. He relied on a huge weapon in his serve to deliver free points. Pete knew how to beat Agassi and played an exceptional first two sets and played well enough in the third and fourth sets to split and win his 5th US Open title. Entering that event Pete had gone more than 24 months since his last title. Roger won his most recent title in June 2013 at Halle. Paul Annacone who helped guide Pete to this last run can help position Roger to make a similar push. I would never say Roger is a lock to win one more major, but I do think he is lock to reach more quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.
Tommy Haas is 35 years old and plays a game that is similar in nature to Roger Federer’s. Haas is also on the cusp of returning to the top 10 in the ATP rankings. Haas has had to overcome injury problems that only a few players can appreciate. Tommy has risen in part due to his fitness level being quite high. Roger can perhaps up his fitness level in some subtle ways that may payoff for him. Also, Roger can take some comfort in knowing that he too can be in or around the top 10 for the next 2-4 years. That gives him some perspective that may prevent urgency from hurting his approach to tennis.
A friend of mine brought up that Federer may need a racquet with a larger sweet spot and head size. My friend also pointed out that Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras hung onto frames that did not suit their needs for too long. If Roger is losing a little of the precision in his movement, a racquet that allows for solid shots even when Federer is not in perfect position makes a lot of sense. A few more square inches of strings might also make volleying slightly easier. Finally, I think the biggest possible benefit for Roger would be a racquet that could increase his ace and service winner numbers. Free points help everyone. A player in his thirties who is losing some of his movement benefits the most from aces/service winners as no intricate or tiring movement is needed when producing an ace. Sampras won his final major in large part due to the number of free points he generated during his service games. Haas proves that Roger has time to change equipment. Sampras proves that aces can spearhead a nice run. Roger has these templates to consider when going forward. Then again Team Federer might say Roger has won 13 of his past 16 matches and that he just ran into a guy serving out of his mind when the grass was slick. His loss was obviously decided by a few points in each set. I think an equipment change might give Roger a few extra points per set.