Monday, July 9, 2012

Federer releases Abbey Road

Twelve months ago after Roger Federer’s loss in the Wimbledon Quarter Finals to Jo Wilfred Tsonga – a match in which Federer led two sets to love – I compared Federer to The Beatles, and noted:

… when Federer lost in 5 sets to Jo Wilfred Tsonga, we have to realise that the end is here. The age of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper is gone. It won’t come back. Federer also had had his Magical Mystery Tour period – in 2008 he lost in the semi-final of the Aussie Open, then got beaten by Nadal in the French Open and (gasp) Wimbledon.

The decline has begun they said. Vale Federer. Thanks for it all.

And then he came out with The White Album and won 4 of the next 6 Grand Slam titles, and came runner-up in the other two.

But still the decline was to come.

I compared his loss to The Beatles Let it Be, writing:

this match is not a Magical Mystery Tour, or Yellow Submarine. It is Let it Be. It is not a hiccup, it actually is as good as he can play. And when you look at the graph you see that from when he started winning he never went more than three tournaments without a Grand Slam. It’s now been six since his last win.

Tennis fans, and especially Federer loyalists, will hope that there is time for an Abbey Road – that one last Grand Slam where the stars align and for 7 matches he comes back. It is more likely to happen than not.

We only had to wait 12 months.

Sunday night at the ungodly hours of 3:15am (EST) Federer beat the local hero, Andy Murray in 4 sets to take his 7th Wimbledon title and 17th Grand Slam. He also (in some ways I think more significantly) recaptured the Number 1 in the world spot – and ensures he will break Pete Sampras’ record for most weeks at Number 1.

His play during the match – especially during the 2rd and 4th sets went into spaces in the tennis space-time continuum that Federer first went forth and discovered. In those sets he played some outrageous forehands which found angles on the court that were never intended to be used; his backhand was as lethal at times as in his younger days. It was as though when the roof came on at 1-1 in the third set, the Wimbledon Centre Court was turned into a time machine.

And yet while Federer reminded us all of his brilliance, it was not the same as back in 2004-07.

I wrote last year that even if Federer came back to play another great tournament, it would be glorious, but different. You only get one chance to change the game, and that time has passed for Federer.

Tennis is now played through the Federer lens. The shots, the tactics, the geometry were all altered by Federer to the extent that it’s as big a shift in tennis as was to poetry when The Beatles came along and destroyed the view of rock’n’roll previously held.

That doesn’t diminish those who came before – but just as The Beatles rendered Elvis rather irrelevant, so too did Federer to the giants who strode the court when he began. Sampras and Agassi knew their time was up.

Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Del Potro, Tsonga, even Tomic all play the game on Federer’s terms. Nadal’s genius is like that of The Rolling Stones, he has found his own magical niche – and what he does he does even better than does Federer. Djokovic may be like The Kinks or possibly The Who – able to string together a magical period where you think, heck if he could hold it all together there’s no limit to what he can achieve. Murray is good enough to be The Who, but for now he is Herman's Hermits.

And so while watching Federer Sunday night was a joy for tennis fans, when we saw him play those impossible shots we didn’t think – well that’s something new; more – well that’s something we haven’t seen him do for a while.

Federer fans can tell when he is “on”. His backhand is the guide. His forehand – where he skips sweetly around his backhand and then unleashes a shot that sweetly skips past his opponent's reach – is his weapon, but the backhand is the defence. In the first set – which he played the better tennis – it looked good – even accounting for the unforced errors. The unforced errors were interesting – they were not errors that suggested defeat – more frustration. In his semi-final against Djokovic, in the second set Federer lost almost every point that went beyond 4 shots. Often the point would end with a Federer unforced error – but an error made playing a shot that was just going to put the ball back in play. His errors against Murray were more often when attempting a winner. There was an attack behind the errors that implied if he could align his sights, then it would click.

While watching the first set – after recovering the break of serve I remarked to a friend that the match was being played on Federer’s racquet – it was on his terms.

And then he was broken.

If there has been one consistent aspect of this autumn period of Federer’s career it has been his ability to throw in a very loose service game in the midst of a set in which his serve looks impenetrable. And very often that one game is all it takes.

And so when it happened Sunday night I wondered to myself if this was the script to be played out.

The second set featured Murray looking more in charge – he was the one who seemed destined to break and go up 2 sets to love. His supporters (apart from the very sensible Ivan Lendl) were excited and his confidence seemed sky high.

And then Federer broke him to win the set.

And that was the match.

The start of the third showed Federer in a mood. The rain delay was good timing for Murray – a chance to regroup, but it was also time for Federer to get a rest (probably no minor thing for a near 31 year old) – it let the roof go on, which although he protests he would prefer the match to be played in the open, favoured his game. And most crucially it enabled him to review his game plan with his coach. The response when he returned was to target Murray’s weakest shot – his second serve. Rather than chip the ball back Federer quickly let Murray know every second serve would be treated as an opportunity to play target practice.

As a result, Murray’s first serve cracked under the added pressure of knowing it was his only chance of winning a point. In the second set Murray served 72% of his first serves in. In the third it dropped to 49%, in the 4th it was 45%.

That folks is all she wrote. You ain’t going to beat Federer – regardless of how old he is – if you can’t get more than half your first serves in.

In the 3rd and 4th sets Murray played some brilliant shots to win points, but as with unforced errors there are two types of winners – there is the type that shows you can win a point any way you want, and there is the type that you make because you need to just to win a point.

By the time Murray was grimacing and gesticulating at the end of the 3rd it was just a case of Federer maintaining his focus and not indulging in one of his autumn-period sloppy service games.

His demeanour suggested he wasn’t going to allow that to happen.

And thus he won the title. It wasn’t one of his greatest matches. It wasn’t up there with the finals he won at Wimbledon against Nadal or Roddick, nor the one he lost against Nadal, nor the semi-final he lost against Safin at the Australian Open in 2005, but that is judging the match against some of the best games ever played.

His entire tournament was an amalgam of heaven and earth. In the first round he lost 3 games in the whole match – 1 in each set. In the second he got lazy and lost 6 games. Having stayed up to watch these matches I didn’t bother maintaining a vigil for his third round match against French plodder Julien Benneteau. I woke to find that Federer had lost the first two sets and looked set to follow Rafa Nadal out of the tournament. Had he lost then, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray would likely have met in the final.

The fourth round seemed to be the one in which Federer would finally succumb to reality and time. In his first set against Xavier Malisse he looked shocking. Malisse is an honest player whose greatest thing he’ll be able to tell his grandkids is that he once beat Roger Federer when they were both 18 year old. And then lost to him the next 10 times they played.

But on this day Federer could barely move to his right to hit a forehand. He took a time out – an event rare enough to suggest portents of doom. And then to his great credit, when they reached the tie break, Malisse played an absolute shocker. He hit 5 unforced errors that handed Federer the set. A rain delay soon after allowed Federer time to get a massage and get his back warm. He rolled Malisse 6-1 in the second, and it looked all set for the usual Fed-express. Instead the usual autumn-period sloppy service game Federer appeared and Malisse won the third 6-4. But a 6-3 win in the 4th set gave Federer the match and time over the middle weekend to get more work done on his back.

Whatever they did, did indeed work, for in the Quarter Final – his jaw-dropping, 33rd in a row (a record so incredible that for Djokovic, who has the second best streak going, to break it, would need to keep making quarter finals until the US Open in 2017) – he was back in playing tennis in heaven mode. He destroyed Mikhail Youzhny 6-1 6-2 6-2.

He had thus far had a pretty easy draw. He hadn't done it easy, but no one he faced would have really considered themselves a chance prior to the tournament.

But the semi final was different.

Here he faced Novak Djokovic in the midst of his career- summer. Djokovic has not only made 11 Quarter Finals in a row, he has made 9 semi finals in a row (only one behind Pete Sampras’s best streak of 10), he also had made 4 finals in a row and won three of them. Tennis players when they get hot need to cash in, and Djokovic has cashed in as well as anyone in an 18 month period.

Federer took the first set of their semi-final seemingly while Djokovic was still in the change rooms. It was over so quickly that Djokovic hardly had time to get warm. No worries, he got very warm in the second and unleashed some pure tennis brilliance.

He was unplayable. Federer was struggling to stay on the same court as him. He couldn’t keep with him in rallies, and Djokovic was hitting the ball so deep that Federer never had time to get into an attacking position. I can’t recall him hitting one clean winner, though the statistics say he hit 6 of them. Djokovic hit 12 in the set and forced many more errors from Federer’s racquet. 

Djokovic won it 6-3. They were one set a piece, but Djokovic looked in front. He needed only to keep up that level and Federer would be gone – and truly it would have been a match in which the new replaced the old.

But Djokovic couldn’t keep up that level. He dropped ever so slightly, and Federer improved ever so slightly. Suddenly Federer was the one hitting the ball deep, and Novak was now struggling to keep the pace. In both the 3rd and 4th sets Federer hit more winners and more importantly hit winners that beat Djokovic for pace – forehands than blew past him, rather than shots with angles that were unplayable.

But due to what happened last year in the US Open when Federer lost the match although serving at 40-15, 5-4 in the 5th set, again no one put down their glasses and said it was over. Federer made his fans earn it in that last game, but he prevailed without having to face a break point, and then he looked to the final and Andy Murray.

So what does this win mean for his career and for those who chase him?

Last year I charted his Grand Slam career – giving 1 point for a first round loss, 2 for a 2nd round and so on until an 8 for a Grand Slam win:


This win elevates his 4 slam average (the black line) to above the semi-final level. Again it shows that while it was a wonderful display, he is not where he was in 2005-2009 when he averaged getting to the final of each grand slam- and did so 10 times in a row, then 8 times in a row (the 1st and 2nd best streaks ever – Nadal losing in the 2nd ended his 5 finals streak).

But what about his overall tally of 17 grand slam finals?

Here is the update of the graphs I used 2 weeks ago to chart the progress of Federer against some of the other greats of the post 1980 era (I’ve added in Murray to show were he lies):


That little bump at the end of Federer’s graph make life that bit tougher for Nadal. Rafa sits on 11 wins. He now needs 6 more to equal Federer. His last 6 took 15 grand slams. If he keeps up that pace he’ll get there at around his 53rd Grand Slam. But saying it is much easier than doing it. As both Federer and Sampras show – the last half of the grand slams is tougher to get than the first half. In fact if you set a trend line from the start of his career, if he plays as many slams as does Sampras, Nadal is projected to win 15 titles.

The graph also shows, Murray needs to start winning. He’s overdue.

A look at the pace of wins after their first grand slam also shows the difficulty now present for Nadal:


At the pace he’s going Nadal, if he plays as many Grand Slams after his first win as did Sampras, would end up with 18 titles. But trend lines can be rather misleading – if you applied the same trend to Federer he’d be projected to end up with 25 titles!

Both Nadal and Federer have won a Grand Slam title 7 times- Federer, Wimbledon, Nadal, the French Open. The difference is if you take that happy hunting ground away from them both, Federer still has 10 Grand Slam titles, Nadal has only 4. For Nadal to break Federer’s total he’ll need to win more at the non-French Open grand slams than he has in the past. That would require doing something like Federer did in 2005-2009 when he reached the final of 18 out of 19 tournaments.

And that is hard to see happening.

Such things are for the future, however. It probably won’t change the debate about the relative worth of the two players either. They will forever be The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Both great, both great in different ways, and if we are truly honest, the Stones are always just that bit in the shadow of The Beatles, if only because they came first.

And so we move on to the US Open, via a trip back to Wimbledon for the Olympics. It is a bonus for the players as it doesn’t involve anyone defending any ranking points and thus any points are added to their total without having to lose any from the previous year’s tournament. How many points you need to defend is crucial – as Bernard Tomic found when he lost his points from making the quarter final last year and tumbled to number 45 in the world.

As Federer only leads Djokovic by 75 points, the Olympics are a big opportunity for Djokovic to retain the top ranking. The US summer however contains many points for Djokovic to defend. From the two master tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati and the US Open, Djokovic is defending 3,600 points (a win in the US Open, Canada and runner-up in Cincinnati). Federer on the other hand is only defending 990 points. The two of them are now over 2,000 points ahead of Nadal. So until the US Open no one else is a chance to be number 1.

The US Open sets up as an intriguing tournament. Despite Federer winning I get the sense the younger generation are getting close to stepping up. Thus far Djokovic won on his best surface – the Australian Open hard courts. Nadal won on his favoured clay, and Federer won on the grass. Andy Murray’s best surface is the US hard courts. I think he can win it.

This autumn has become a glorious Indian summer for Federer. Talk of retirement is dismissed – he’s enjoying the game too much – he’s too good to retire. He may no longer be changing the way tennis is played, just as Abbey Road, despite being such a wonderful album didn’t do anything other than show that The Beatles when they really clicked were better than anyone else.

Sunday night was one for the ages, because we know despite his ranking and despite his play it could be the last one of the Federer age. But for now just enjoy that great music – Federer showing he is still at times the “Sun King” and that it’s not quite time to sing “The End”.


kymbos said...

I don't care what anyone says - the White Album is messy, confused and over-rated.

Meanwhile, my bet that Murray will not win a slam looks increasingly shaky after Murray's recent performance. I'll be surprised if he doesn't break through in the next 18 months.

Congrats on the book, by the way. I've been wondering what you've been up to.

Trung said...

One of the important part of Beatles legacy was that they broke up and retired at their peak (IMO Abbey road is their best album even if there is nothing revolutionary about it) before their creative slump. Abbey road importance in Beatles legacy is that it is their swan song and they retire when they are on top.

Whist artist like Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Bob Dylan, The Who, Paul McCartney solo career continued onwards into the 80's releasing subpar material that ended up tarnishing (unfairly in my mind, artist should be judged by their peak works) their legacy.

The Beatles stand out for the fact that every album they release (possible exception of Yellow Submarine soundtrack but I rather not count that as an album) is at least very good.

This leads to Federer and his retirement and whether he will continue following the Beatles analogy. Will he able to do a late career hurrah winning a final grand slam in his mid 30's and retire ontop as the king of tennis or will he continue playing on despite being half a man he used to be.

So I will say it's premature to say this is his abbey road. An abbey road would be Federer retiring as number 1 after winning his final grand slam.

This is still his Let It be period (which by the way, I quite like that album and believe it is underrated).

Greg Jericho said...

Good points Trung (and Abbey Road is my favourite as well). But my suspicion is Federer just loves to play and will keep playing until he no longer can. (He's already talking the 2016 Olympics!)

kymbos said...

Well, I let this go a long time unchallenged.

The thing about the White Album for me is that there are so many tunes that I think are really sub-par Beatles tunes. Most every album has its 'when I'm 64', but the White album has the following tunes that really stick in my craw:

"Back in the U.S.S.R."
"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
"The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill"
"Rocky Raccoon"

Then there are a bunch of ok tunes, and some absolute pearls.

But for mine, it feels like a first draft of a great album. I find it hard to listen to in full, because there are too many tunes I just can't listen to.

Ulisses Braga Neto said...

Checking in four years later, to say that this post was spot on, 2012 Wimbledon was indeed "Abbey Road" for Federer. He is not winning any more slams, not with Djokovic in his way for at least two more years.

I also would like to say that kymbos should give a second or third listen to all the songs he mentioned. These are all classic Beatles songs from classic Beatles' albums. In fact, there is not a single song on the White Album or Sgt Pepper's that is a bad song, precisely because they are all album songs, they are part of a wonderful whole. You can't treat these songs as singles. Just my two cents.