Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic met in the semifinals in Rome and I imagined what might have been going through Roger’s head.
If we were to treat today’s Rome semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer as a dramatic plot – and why not considering that each match and tournament, and any other form of sports competition for that matter, follows a complete dramatic arc in the short time it takes to go from start to end – the fourth game in the second set would be the turnaround, the point at which everything changes.
Roger had won the first set and he was now up a break at 3-1 in the second and he had a break point. We’re used to seeing Roger’s game improve with each round and this would have been the perfect time to lift his game just one more notch and put the second set away with a double break. He’d already hit a gorgeous backhand winner but when the break point came around, he chose that critical point to hit one of those limp backhands we complain about.
We always marveled at Roger’s slice backhand when he was using it to neutralize cannons from Andy Roddick and all the other big servers out there, but now we pull our hair out in exasperation as he keeps losing to Rafa the Exterminator without making adjustments. Why doesn’t he attack the serve from the backhand side?
Nole’s serve wasn’t that big but Roger sliced a return short and Nole promptly put it away. After Roger followed that up with two errors into the net, Nole had saved his serve. The errors kept coming from Roger with three in the next game and that gave Nole a break and put him back on serve. And it wasn’t as if Nole was pressing Roger, he was keeping the ball in play and letting Roger take himself out of the match.
This is a time when I’d like to have seen Roger crush a racket or do something more demonstrative than drop his head. As it was, Nole was the one who lifted his game and you could see it when he had a break point to go up 5-3. The two of them embarked on a 22 stroke rally that started with Roger running Nole all over the place, switched to Nole running Roger around, almost ended when Roger saved a ball that landed dead on the baseline and popped up at an awkward angle, and definitively ended with Roger mis-hitting yet another backhand.
I can only imagine what must be cross-eyed murky little characters with muddy boots running though Roger’s brain like Keystone Kops tripping all over each other and generally making a mess of things. I can also imagine Roger metaphorically swiping at them with his tennis racket trying to quiet the interior noise only to get distracted enough to mishit a backhand and find himself down 5-3 in a set which started with him up a break.
Roger will come away from this match telling himself that a semifinal loss in Rome is a great improvement over a third round loss in Monte Carlo and that he’s happy with his progress as he moves towards his goal of winning at Roland Garros, but this is the same way he lost to Nole in Miami and that will only feed those muddy little monsters. Roger managed to break Nole to get up 3-1 yet again in the third se, but Roger then lost his serve at love, throwing another mishit in there, and only won one more game the rest of the way.
I’d like to see Roger turn down the volume on the arrogance just the slightest bit and, assuming he has no physical problems that we’re not aware of, privately call up a mental coach or an actual tennis coach and pick their brain about the subject of focus. What once came naturally is now a struggle and it’s not as much about lifting his game as it is playing consistently. That skill has to be regained the way he learned it the first time: step by step.
For sure he’s not starting at the beginning and he could continue to play his way in semifinals and be happy, but if he wants that extra one or two slams, a remedial step might be necessary.