In the past six months, Federer has beaten Juan Martin del Potro and taken sets from Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But he's also had some shocking results. He's not only losing now to guys who are younger and stronger. Hewitt, after all, is 32, the same age as Federer — in fact, a few months older than Federer. Tommy Robredo, who beat Federer at the U.S. Open in September, is 31. The problem isn't just that Federer has more days now where he wakes up with a stiff back or in need of an extra cup of coffee. The problem isn't just that his movement is a microsecond slower, or that he doesn't quite have the flexibility he once did, or that he doesn't anticipate as well as he did when he was dominant. It's not just his body. It's his head. The shanks are what you notice; that whiff is what you remember. But the shanks aren't why he lost that first set to Hewitt — nor why, after settling down, playing decently, and winning the second set, he went on to lose the match. He has lost because he bunted his returns and tried to rip his groundstrokes, and it was hard to see any purpose, any plan. The standard advice, almost always, for almost anyone, is to be aggressive, but the way he tried to be aggressive was bizarre. He took big risks at strange moments, unloading on forehands that should have been defensive shots. He mistook pace for boldness, ran through standard forehands, and seemed to have no clue what he wanted to do with the ball next. He lined up a rally ball and hit it two feet long and five feet wide. He hesitated before charging the net and then hit approach shots that turned him into a sitting duck. I'm being unfair — sort of. In the second set he found his range. But it wasn't enough. And when the pressure was on most, when he had break points on Hewitt's serve, his shots once again broke down.
Federer is old for a tennis player, and he also plays in one of the most competitive ages for men's tennis. What's difficult for an athlete, I imagine, because I am not one, must be facing up to the fact that one must change one's strategy because of the a decline in physical skills. Federer is not the tennis god he once was, and yet the memory of those days must still be so vivid. He's only 32, after all, he's not that many years removed from making the semifinals of every Grand Slam with frightening regularity.
But tennis is a game of slim margins. Winners of matches usually win by the slightest of margins on total points. In last year's U.S. Open, for example, in which Nadal beat Djokovic in four sets, Nadal won 121 points, Djokovic 102, and it was one of the more decisive Nadal wins versus the Djoker. Often just a few points separate the winner from the loser.
Federer's declining hand-eye coordination, stamina, and foot speed all mean that he can't beat other top players just by trying to outplay them in long rallies. The longer the rally, the more his physical deficits are likely to factor into the point's outcome. He has to be more clever, take more smart risks, try to shorten points.
In the past I've been skeptical that Federer would be willing to shift his strategy significantly, but he's at least said some of the right things following the worst year of his career since he ascended to the tennis elite. He's promised to serve and volley more this year. He hired serve and volley great Stefan Edberg as his coach. He's committed to using a larger 98-inch racket from Wilson this season.
I'm skeptical that attacking the net in the modern game is a winning strategy. With modern racket and string technology, it's much easier to pass than in previous ages of tennis, and Djokovic in particular has a devastating return. However, I'm glad to hear Federer acknowledge that he has to try something. I'd love to see him run around more backhands on his return and try to seize the advantage on points using his forehand which remains his most dangerous stroke, albeit not as reliable as in years past.
Changing one's strategy after achieving some level of success, to speak nothing of the historic greatness Federer put on his resume, is so difficult. Perhaps embracing his role as the underdog now will loosen him up to be a more dangerous opponent.