Federer Resuscitates Himself, Just In Time

In film school they used to yak at us about the mythical structures that occur in films and novels. The story of the Hero is a primal one: he rises, he doubts, he sputters, pitfalls occur, he may lose faith and purpose, he may part with the trusted souls who have helped him to this point. Then he reemerges, reinvents himself and is reborn. I thought of all this ancient stuff when I saw Roger Federer really take it to Rafael Nadal on this Sunday past in Hamburg. He even baked the lad a bagel in the final set. I thought for sure I had woken up not only on the wrong side of the bed but on the wrong planet.

If any athlete approaches the heroic ideal these days, it would have to be Roger Federer. I might be inclined to add Tiger Woods to that, but golf for me is not a sport requiring the same athletic skills as tennis. It is still rather mind-boggling to contemplate what happened on Sunday, especially given how strong Nadal looked in roaring through the first set, 6-2. I had hoped Federer would carry with him the imprint of how he had played in the second part of his semifinal match against Carlos Moya. He finally got his serve going, his forehand started to motor, and the level of aggression in his game had picked up. If he comes out doing that against Nadal, I thought, he may have a chance. Well, a chance to get a set off him at least. That was the best the Number One could hope for.

Instead he came out and looked rather flat in the opening set against Nadal. None of those aforementioned shots were working in his game. Nothing had been really working in Federer’s game for a while. The week before in Rome he lost a dismal match to a player far down in the rankings. Before that Guillermo Canas had rung his bell twice on Roger’s favorite hard court surface. The locker room was suddenly awash in newly-confident guys who now thought they all had a shot against the world’s number one. It seemed that the only thing Roger hadn’t misplaced was his coach. He got fired him instead.

That dismissal probably roiled Federer up good inside. Who knows, with his clay court season plans fast disappearing up in smoke, he may have even wondered why he was playing Hamburg at all. Now he was faced with the prospect of a long afternoon, having just dropped the first set to Nadal and giving no signs he was going to recover from the drubbing.

How did he turn it around? My co-writer Nina Rota put it this way…..”Who else coulda hung in there emotionally well enough to let his game emerge like that…he must have a deep reservoir of self-awareness and confidence.” She adds, “When Federer does something like this I wish I was a much better writer because he is transcendent and exceptional in a way that I’m not sure I have the language for.” We are still inventing that language, Nina, hang in there!

Theories are circulating as to why Federer started playing better in Hamburg. One suggests that Federer’s separation from Roche triggered a kind of emotional release. He wanted to separate from his coach for a while and was uncertain how to go about doing that. The men were friends, after all, and it sounded to me like Roger was feeling a bit guilty about wanting to make a change. But he knew the change needed to be made, the question was when.

Filippo Volandri provided the impetus in his drubbing of Roger in Rome. Federer had to act immediately. The Roche Coach rolled away. Suddenly, it seemed someone had flung open a window for Federer. In his earlier matches his play, while not exactly sparkling, showed renewed signs of life. The feet were moving happily, his game slowly started coming together. He played his way out of his emotional morass on Sunday. Who knows, maybe Federer ended up playing exactly the way Rochie would have wanted him to play. Does this reflect discredit upon Roche? Not necessarily. Tony may be smiling to himself somewhere Down Under.

There should really be no secrets as to how players can go after Nadal. Good steady serving, at least one of your ground weapons working well and a decent dollop of aggression can get the job down. Nadal was probably quite sincere when he said after the match that, given his druthers if he had to lose, he would rather lose to the world’s number one. How bad would it be to pick up the papers and read how Nadal’s fabulous 81-match winning streak on clay came to an abrupt end because of – Lleyton Hewitt??? As the teenyboppers say, “EEeewwww!”

But it was probably the Hewitt match that took enough of the stuffing out of Nadal so Roger could maneuver his way in. Nadal did not look especially strong in his earlier matches and he came as close this week to looking a bit fatigued as we have ever seen him. Still, he showed up to play and he had no excuses, especially when he was so totally outplayed in the last two sets. When was the last time anyone bageled Nadal? On clay? I don’t think such a rarity has ever happened. Federer managed one in the first set at Wimbledon last year, but that was on grass. There’s always a first time we suppose.

Does this victory entirely restore Federer? Was he ever really that far off track? For the most part it does restore him, but the French will involve a five-set final if Federer makes it that far. Certainly a much bolder test. But bring it on, we can’t wait. And how about a really strange scenario: Roger wins the French, but Rafa takes Wimbledon?

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