Federer Meltdown in Miami

15:07 Fri 03 Apr 2009
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This morning I watched the Key Biscayne Master’s semifinal between Roger Federer, ranked #2, and Novak Djokovic, ranked #3. Neither of them has been playing great tennis, with Djokovic squeaking by Tsonga and Federer scraping by Roddick.

I really thought that Federer would win, because Djokovic has never been in his head the way Nadal (and now, maybe, Murray) are, and because I think that Federer’s game generally matches up very well against Djokovic. Furthermore, I think that Djokovic has been mentally fragile recently, and expected him to crack against Federer.

That’s what seemed to be happening, too, in the first set. Federer broke Djokovic early, twice, and was breezing through the first set at five-one. His forehand was working well, he was sharp at the net and generally, and Djokovic was just out of it and playing poorly. He wasn’t really challenging Federer at all, and Federer just needed to serve out the set, and Djokovic would really be in a tough spot.

Federer lost the first point of that service game on some error, either a double fault or a bad unforced error when he was controlling the point. And I thought “oh no”.

That’s right, the number two player in the world is up 5-1, 0-15, and I’m worried. Because he’s been really prone to just drifting away from matches over the last several months, and if he did that here, Novak would obviously feel under a lot less pressure.

Sure enough, Federer hands Djokovic the game on a platter, with really bad errors. Djokovic then holds serve, pretty easily, to go to 3-5—another crucial point, because if Federer had broken him there he would have sent a message that the prior service game was merely an aberration. Instead, he doesn’t really contend in it at all. He does manage to serve out the first set, 6-3.

But from there on, it’s ridiculous. I think it’s the worst I have ever seen Federer play. It wasn’t merely that he was going for tough shots and missing them, as he has been wont to do over the last year or so. It wasn’t merely that he was stuttering in and out of form and missing on the critical points, which has also been happening. This was a full-scale breakdown, and particularly on the forehand side. He would play good, solid rallies, setting up the winning shot so that it wouldn’t be too hard, and then miss it completely. He would just screw up the forehand winners terribly, and then that spread to more or less everything. At one point Djokovic won 24 out of 28 points, which is ludicrous. It’s even more ludicrous considering that he wasn’t playing that well. He hit the occasional winner, but mostly all he did was put the ball back in play and wait for Federer to screw up. Which Federer did.

At one stage, Federer got an easy sitter at the net on his forehand, and instead of putting away the winner he hit it two feet beyond the baseline. It was a completely crazy shot for him to miss, and it wasn’t even close.

At 0-2 in the third, Federer smashed his racket. I’ve never seen him do that before, certainly not since he became a top player, and this was complete destruction of the racket, too. It didn’t help. He went to 0-4 (!) before he regained even a little bit of form, and he couldn’t keep that together either. Djokovic, by virtue of doing nothing but playing a relatively smart game—i.e. recognizing that all he had to do was to keep the ball in play—got the win 3-6 6-2 6-3.

It’s pretty nuts. I don’t think he can recover his form, now, without some major change. I have no idea what that is, but this to me looks far worse than last year. It’s really hard to watch, given how clearly psychological it is, although it’s likely that his recent back injury isn’t helping. Nevertheless, it’s the psychological issues that are core to it, and it just looks like Federer is not reacting to this adversity well at all. I hate to even say that, particularly since he’s still a phenomenal tennis player, but this on top of the problems he had at the Australian Open make it seem like there’s no other conclusion.

It also appears that he’s losing his ability to play okay tennis. That is, he seems to have about three settings: sublime, stuttering, and awful. Sublime is the “Federer of old”, and when he’s playing like that nobody can really touch him except Nadal on a good day, and I’d still take Federer to win when he’s on form. But Federer can barely seem to make that last a set at the moment. Stuttering is when it’s not so good, and he alternates between great shots and unforced errors. He can still win with that sometimes, if his serve is on, but it’s pretty difficult. Then there’s awful, which is what he was after the first six games today.

Stuttering isn’t really the same as “okay”. His stuttering form isn’t the same as what you would call “solid tennis” for other top players. Federer doesn’t seem to have that mode, and that’s really hurting him right now. If he could have played “solid tennis” against Djokovic at any point, it’s quite possible that Novak would have imploded himself. It certainly would have gotten him back into things.

It’s sad to see, and it looks like the issues he had in the Australian Open final are spreading, not getting any better. If it spreads to any earlier at Slams than the semifinals, then the Federer era might really be over.

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