Tennis Freaks

“1821: Nadal, I’ve noticed, has a problem with his shorts, in that they keep on getting stuck up his jacksie and he has to pull them out before every point. Not sure why he doesn’t just get a size up, he’s probably loaded.”

Fed Express flying solo, and in need of repair

Matthew Cronin / Special to FOXSports.com

Roger Federer is experiencing his first notable slump since 2003 — he just won’t admit it.

 

But all signs point to a man who is doubting himself. Last weekend, he fired his coach — the well respected Australian Tony Roche — and said he will go it alone at the French Open and Wimbledon. Federer has now gone four consecutive tournaments without winning a crown, his longest drought in nearly four years.

“I know what it takes and I don’t want anybody interfering with my preparation and with my tournaments,” Federer said at the Hamburg Masters Series, where he will face Juan Monaco in his opening match on Wednesday. “There was a lack of communication and it was never like that at the start. Maybe after 2½ years, you think this relationship needs more, and then it’s too late to change it.”

Clay has not been kind to Roger Federer, but can he turn his luck around without a coach? (Clive Brunskill/Staff / Getty Images)

Federer, a ten-time Grand Slam champion, was defiant in defending his canning of Roche, saying that the relationship had run its course. But it’s clear that something was amiss, as Federer chose to pull off the move right after he took his most shocking loss in nearly four years when he was beaten in straight sets by journeyman Filippo Volandri in Rome.

“I’ve been waiting for some kind of letdown for the past couple of years,” The Tennis Channel’s Jimmy Arias said, “because mentally, it’s so hard to maintain the same level of motivation for as long as Federer has. No one has ever had that type of a sustained run.”

There are rumors afloat that Federer is interested in eventually hiring Darren Cahill, the former coach of Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi, but that talk is very premature.

And it is unlikely that Federer would bring in even a part-time coach now, with two Grand Slams in the near future. He already has a very good idea how to play 95 percent of the players on the planet and what has worked for him mentally and physically in the past. He is, however, searching for answers, and neither he nor his girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec (a former player who sometimes scouts for him), has come up with an answer for how to beat two tireless and talented clay courters. Two-time French Open champ Rafael Nadal and gritty Argentine Guillermo Canas bother Federer a great deal on dirt, because it takes a century to hit through them.

“Those are the types of players who have the styles to bother him,” Arias said. “They keep running down his balls and he can get frustrated.”

 

In his 6-2, 6-4 third-round defeat to Volandri in Rome, Federer couldn’t get around on his forehand quickly enough and sprayed backhands that are normally routine for him. That defeat could have been considered an off-day on his least favorite surface, if it didn’t follow another thumping at the hands of the more confident and steadier Nadal in the Monte Carlo final and two major belches to Canas at Miami and Indian Wells on hardcourts.

“In Monaco, I reached the finals,” Federer said. “I’m very happy the way I played there from the quarters on. Last week (against Volandri) was obviously disappointing, and I wasn’t happy with my performance there. But it’s basically one tournament, because at Indian Wells I had a bit of a blister and then in Miami I think I played well but ended up losing. So nothing really happened in my point of view.”

That’s a sweeping rationalization — and a contradictory one at that. If nothing really occurred, why get rid of Roche, who not only led his prior pupils Ivan Lendl and Pat Rafter to Slam crowns, but helped the top-ranked Federer to six of his 10 Grand Slam titles?

Maybe because despite what Roche said about how to attack the likes of Nadal and Canas (‘come in on the right balls, Roger!’), Federer stopped listening and thought that regardless of what his coach said, he could design winning strategies on his own. In January, after Federer waltzed to the Australian Open crown, Roche said, “He hasn’t even started to use his game.”

He’ll need to do so now.

Federer is a proud guy, especially of his intellect and how he manages his life. Like most great champions, he doesn’t want to be told that he can’t win when playing a particular way and that he has to make significant changes to his game if he hopes to win Grand Slams on every surface.

In the last two years, he’s primarily become an aggressive baseliner. Yes, he’s a solid volleyer who can close out points at the net, but he prefers not to live up there, especially against players like Nadal and Canas, who like nothing better than to launch passing shots.

Both those men can be attacked, but to do so they either have to be drawn way out of position (which in Nadal’s case, is almost impossible on clay, given his quick recovery time), or a player has to fool them by sneaking in.

Prior to March, when he got a bad case of the hiccups, Federer was so adeptly controlling the center of the court that he wasn’t concerned about throwing in change-ups. From the 2006 Wimbledon through the 2007 Dubai Open, where he won his 47th title, he lost all of one match. His three-pitch rotation of fastball-curveball-slider was working perfectly.

Rafael Nadal has owned Roger Federer on clay courts, even half-grass clay courts. (Jaime Reina/Stringer / Getty Images)

But against Nadal, who has beaten Federer all five times they’ve played on clay, very little seems to function. Arias says that Federer’s favorite play — slicing his backhand low crosscourt and either baiting his foe to the net and passing him, or catching him in no-man’s land after a mediocre reply when he retreats to the back court — doesn’t work against the Spaniard. The lefty Nadal’s racket moves at warp speed and he hits with such heavy topspin that he eats the short chip alive and quickly gains control of the point with his forehand.

“Roger is going to have to change that play against Nadal and maybe go down the line more to his backhand, because it’s not working against his forehand,” Arias said. “He also needs to attack Nadal’s second serve more and maybe try to come to (the) net more. But really, none of this may matter on clay because Nadal looks pretty unbeatable on the surface now.”

Federer doesn’t want to absorb that thought. If he wins the French Open, Federer would give himself a chance to become only the third man after Don Budge and Rod Laver to win the calendar year Grand Slam.

But if he plans to even sniff a win against Nadal this week in Hamburg or in three weeks at the French Open final, he has a lot of work to do on court and off. Arias believes the savvy yet stubborn Swiss can turn things around, but he’s going to have to become a committed student and research his rivalries.

“If I were Roger, I get films of my matches against Nadal and break things down,” Arias said. “He might be able to find something in there that he hasn’t thought about before.”

Maybe Federer’s first step has to be admitting that something really is happening.

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