A week or so ago, I celebrated Roger's win over Juan Martin Del Potro in Paris. The win represented a key building block in Roger's rehabilitation process. He played with confidence, and was able to get only his second win over a top ten opponent. But I always knew that the solving the next step of the problem was going to be a big deal. You see to solve a problem, the first thing that must be done is to accept that there is a problem. Roger doesn't believe Djokovic or Nadal are a problem. In many ways, he is being arrogant, or perhaps a tad delusional.
What Patterns are Hurting Roger?
After gaining all kinds of momentum from the second set tie break, Roger was at it gain. The first point started with a backhand pattern that ended up with shanked forehand and a winner from Djokovic.
The next, Djokovic cramped Roger on the inside out, and put away the short offering. Roger played the next two points under pressure and inexplicably missed a routine forehand, and a down the line backhand attempt that had no soul in it. Just like that, he was down a break.
At 1-3, on the very first point, a little depth on the backhand induces an error. At 15-30, yet another backhand pattern, Roger goes down the line, Djokovic hits a running forehand to include an error. The 30-40 point sums up Roger's struggles.
Djokovic patiently waits to develop a backhand pattern and keeps staying with it, relentlessly for about seven or eight shots, challenging Roger to find a way to go inside.
Roger doesn't see a viable down the line option, takes Djokovic's bait, goes inside out and there you have it…Djokovic immediately steps in to play the ball early and finds the vast swaths of land on the Roger deuce side. It's like taking candy away from a baby. A struggling, stretching Roger ends up with a forced error.
The pattern shows that Djokovic is able to effortlessly stay in the rally, with the knowledge that he cannot be hurt on that wing and that Roger will at some point go inside out. It's a trap. Roger needs to find a way out of it.
Djokovic is a retriever, he is probably a much better retriever than Nadal. He has so many ways to stretch on the backhand wing. He can return it with a closed stance. Or he can do it with a ridiculously open stance. It's just not possible to hit though him on that side without his opponent taking significant risks. Nadal with all that heavy top spin with his forehand is unable to hurt Djokovic on a consistent basis.
How can Roger expect to do it with a single handed, closed stance backhand, with a 90 sq. in. racquet, and rotations nowhere near to what Nadal generates on his forehand? It's unbelievable he thinks he can do it. It's…stupid for fans to think he can turn it around given how severely debilitating that racquet has become.
Roger needs a lot more power on his backhand to ensure Djokovic is given plenty to think about and cut down his choices. He doesn't have to finish points with his backhand, but induce a short or weak reply to get ascendancy in the point.
There's only so much he can do to cheat around his backhand without keeping his deuce side line vulnerable. Djokovic, and of course Nadal being a left hander, have tremendous reach to track down the inside outs.
As for Roger's serve, especially the second, Djokovic has utter disdain for it. Unless he really puts his back into the second, which would result in more double faults, Djokovic is able to place it anywhere he wants.
Time after time, he has been cramped on the inside out attempt with deep returns. How does he get more on his second serve without risking not making the serve? Djokovic has been feasting on them. Roger conceded 8 of his 9 second serve points in the last set at Paris. At London, he gave up 7 of 11 and though Djokovic had a poor showing on his second serve too, it didn't matter as he was serving nearly 100% of his first serves, and won 18/20 of them.
When your opponent is serving that well, all you can do is try to hold your own.
A Bigger Racquet is a Must
The solution to both these problems is very simple. A bigger, much more powerful frame. Tinkering with balance, type and tension of strings is not going to get it done. No, it's NOT going to get it done.
It's easier said than done because by changing the characteristics of the frame, Roger will have to change his playbook. He must do it or he will not survive. Some may argue that he made an honest attempt to change his equipment. That is completely wrong.
You can't play a grand total of five games across two tournaments on clay to really understand how the new racquet performs. It was never used on hard courts, where the bounce is truer and would've probably helped more.
It was never tested against the top five. The performance against Nadal at Cincinnati shows that he is missing that little edge, that little something that can put him over his most bitter rivals. But he refuses to get the edge. It's highly doubtful it's going to happen next year.
Roger's Legacy is Being Tarnished
At the time of this writing, Roger is yet to play his last two group matches in London but it's easy to see that he will struggle against Del Potro, and even risks not being able to qualify for the Semi Final, where he would be destined, or depending on how you look at it, doomed to face Rafael Nadal.
Nadal, who has absolutely no doubt in his mind about how he needs to play Roger. Isn't it about time Roger sat down in a quiet corner and asked himself a question, “When will this misery end? What do I have to do to turn things around? If I cannot find an answer, is it time to call it a day?”.
The answer lies in the equipment. Djokovic is getting stronger and more confident by the day. Nadal has shown no signs of slowing down and in all likelihood, will pick up the London title this year.
Meanwhile, Roger's H2H keeps deteriorating and by my estimate, in a few months or maybe even sooner, he will have a accomplished the feat of having a losing record againt Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray.
As a Roger Federer fan, it's really hard to defend that record. You cannot be called the greatest player of all time if you have failed to best your top 3 rivals, who also happen to be multiple slam winners.
It doesn't matter whether I think he is the GOAT, the H2H will leave an indelible mark on his legacy. There is no doubt that he has accomplished a more “complete body of work”, as said by Rod Laver, but it will pale when you put in light the fact that he couldn't best any of his top rivals.
We can't go on and on about court conditions, and equipment. If the courts have been slowed down, which indeed they have been, what has Roger done to counter the problem? Why do we as fans have to keep blaming Nadal and Djokovic, or Ferrer for exploiting the conditions in their favor? It gets a little old after a while.
As a rank amateur when it comes to tennis, my words mean nothing. But I have a general hope that Roger will embrace change, and will do so soon. The purpose of this post is not to criticize the great man, but to express my frustrations as a fan.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
― Theodore Roosevelt