A Failure of Serve, A Failure of Nerve

The early demise of the world number one woman, Maria Sharapova, and the number one man, Roger Federer, in Miami recently has fueled speculation as to what this portends, if anything. Could it be that a minor upheaval may be taking place that could render the game of tennis very interesting? If they can’t be dominant, who can step up in their place?

We are wondering. For Sharapova, Miami was the tournament where her serve really went south. Suddenly, the best serve in women’s tennis (Serena is a very close second) had degenerated into something resembling her countrywoman’s, Elena Dementieva. She had some injury concerns, shoulder and hamstring, and that may have been just enough of a problem to throw her off. Her toss and approach to the ball look normal, although not having a fully healthy leg to plant and push off from was troublesome.

After watching the tape of her loss to Serena Williams, Maria appeared to be having more problems with the finish of her serve, how her wrist pronated at the end of the shot, or failed to. She was alternately spraying balls long, or dumping them into the net. Whether this derived from the hamstring problem or is symptomatic of mental yips we can’t tell yet. I am leaning toward the former.

While Maria was suffering from a failure of serve, Roger Federer was coping with another failure of nerve. He should have won his match with Canas. It was there on his racquet just as it was last spring against Nadal in Rome and again at Roland Garros.

His comments afterwards are revealing, both for what they disclose, and what they don’t.

I was really expecting myself to win tonight, but it’s one of those matches I should have never lost.”

Well, Roger, why did you lose? I kept waiting for some intrepid soul in that presser to step up to the plate and wrestle him to the ground with a question like, “What happens to your nerves at those points?”

Or this: The big points didn’t go my way in today’s match, but that happens.

Well, Roger, why didn’t they go your way? You speak as if something untoward came down the pike and had its way with you. Like there was nothing you could do. Nobody ever wants to admit that they choked the victory away. But that’s all it was.

Or this: I guess he played well against me both times, and I couldn’t put him away unfortunately.

These comments raise the questions: is Roger Federer too much of a nice guy? Can he stick the knife into an opponent? Normally we say yes, we’ve seen him beat players week after week for what seems an eternity. But every once in a while, the nerves beset even Roger, he grows tentative at a crucial moment or two.

In tennis these days, a blink of a moment is all you need to lose a match. What I liked about Roger Federer from the get-go was that he belied the old saw that nice guys can’t win big and win steadily. He showed us otherwise. I would hate to see anything in his make-up as a person change drastically to adapt to new circumstances but I would love to see him return to his winning ways. Even if he has to get up a little crankier in the mornings.

It bothers me that he speaks of the disaster as if it happened to someone else, in a galaxy far far away. Partly that is a protective device people develop to distance themselves from the catastrophe. Look at Djokovic after losing last year at Roland Garros to Nadal. To hear him talk, he was in total control of the match even though he lost. You store the evil stuff until a later time when you are more ready to process it.

Clearly, there should be some processing going on here. For starters, Roger should say what the problem is. Don’t talk around it, guy, smack it on the head. Maybe Roger does this alone with Tony Roche, his coach. I hope so, because he hides himself in his public comments.

In another television interview I saw recently, Roger Federer was quoted as saying that what he needed to do now was to remember “how to play the big points again.” Sometimes, the big points come and the player is not ready, the nerves close in. Even though Federer felt he played a high quality match against Canas in Miami, I have never seen Roger look so tight on a tennis court before. It was the most nerve-wracking match I’ve ever sat through with him, and believe me, I have sat through many. I think the nerves really got to him at key moments; enough that anyone would forget how to play the “big points.“

After it was over and Federer was packing up his bags, I thought, “My God, Roger Federer was frail today.” Suddenly his body even looked frail. He is not exactly a physical specimen with that rather bony frame and those pointy elbows. For a moment I even thought I detected a tear or two rolling down his cheek. Because we know Federer doesn’t sweat, right?

But does anyone really think he won’t find his way back on track? He has to. Now he’s on a Swiss stamp, it was revealed today, holding his Wimbledon trophy in that lovely white jacket. No backing down off the mountain now, Roger. Onward!

As for Maria Sharapova, she’ll be back too. Hopefully when she is physically ready this time. Then we can really see more clearly if her service hiccups are injury-related, or signs of other, deeper troubles.

They will both regroup because they have high standards and they know there is a level of competence that they, as leading tennis players, cannot slip below. If anything, their losses will be a wake-up call of rather major proportions. I think they will still be the number one players by year’s end. Anyone want to be bet otherwise?

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