Roger Federer's Willingness to Change Game Puts Him Back in the Fight
The game was starting to blow right by him, and he was still insisting that his losses were from bad weather, tiny back pain, or whatever else he could think of to keep his greatness current.
"People make it sound like I was just pushing the ball into play,'' Federer told me Tuesday after he crushed Stanislas Wawrinka 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 to advance to the semis of the Australian Open. "I don't think that's how anybody ever saw me play.''
Let's be real honest: Pushing the ball is exactly what he was doing, in contrast to the new generation of players. But plenty of Federer fans were in denial, too, pretending they couldn't see how much better Rafael Nadal had become than their hero.
But also be honest about this: what Federer has done now is truly remarkable. He has made the change this late in his career. The amazing thing isn't that he was able to do it, but that he was willing to.
In hiring Pete Sampras' former coach, Paul Annacone, in July, Federer was finally admitting that he had a problem. Step One. Now, Federer is stepping into his backhand, ripping topspin instead of floating slice, and attacking the net at times.
He has decided to attack before being attacked.
Good enough to overtake Nadal again? I don't think so. But he's back in the fight. And let's not ruin a nice story here.
The change in Federer is not just his backhand, but also his psyche. When I asked him why he felt the change was necessary, he opened up, at least a little, that maybe his perfection wasn't as perfect as he had thought.
"I think just at crucial times, it haunted me to play a bit passive instead of trying to take it to the opponent a bit more,'' he said. "You know, with success sometimes you get a bit comfortable: because it's working, why change it?
"Sure, I was always trying to look for new ways. But there were times, you know, it didn't work against a few players. I ran into a few players at the wrong times, maybe. It just stuck in my gameplan. Instead of changing ... I got a bit unlucky at times, too. Who knows.''
I love that answer. Look at how conflicted it is, how much it shows he still struggles to admit there were flaws.
He says he was passive, too comfortable, haunted, stuck. Or unlucky against only a couple of players.
Federer talked about getting his confidence back. Had he ever admitted that it was slipping?
Annacone is getting a lot of credit, and he deserves it for preaching aggressiveness. But Federer is the one who made the change, and more importantly, the one who acknowledged that he needed to hire Annacone.
So what had happened? Tennis technology had moved fast. The average sports fan can't see it, because today's rackets and strings look roughly the same as they did 20 years ago. In truth, the change in the past couple years alone, as new rackets match up with polyester strings, is even more dramatic than the change from the old tiny wood rackets to the big-headed rackets.
I had asked Federer about this several times in different places in 2010, with him denying each time that it was a problem for him.
"I don't think it has much to do with technology, to be quite honest,'' he said in Cincinnati. "There are other reasons maybe behind the losses or other reasons for their victories. So now, I haven't made any changes in myself.''
Federer is using an old racket, and said he is using half-and-half modern strings and old ones.
Denial. Not much to do with technology?
"Maybe fractionally,'' Annacone said Wednesday. "You can hit as hard as you want, and it doesn't go out.''
For an opponent to have that, it is not a small fraction. "It helps Roger, too,'' Annacone said.
Not with that racket. But Federer was just so talented that he could still keep up.
Bigger, stronger players such as Juan Martin del Potro and Robin Soderling came along, using the technology to blast the ball and push Federer backward.
"Losing in the quarters of Wimbledon and the French is a disaster,'' Annacone said sarcastically. "He won the Australian (in 2010). ... Pete used to tell me if he would win one Slam a year, he had a good year.''
Annacone is still massaging Federer's ego, which is probably smart. The dynamic between them is interesting, as Federer is used to being solely responsible for his greatness.
What have he and Annacone been working on the past six months?
"We didn't have that much time, to be quite honest ... '' Federer said. "Maybe down the road we'll have more time to work in the offseason. It was just more getting to know each other a bit.''
Based on that, I'm surprised Federer can even remember Annacone's name.
"Hopefully,'' Annacone said, "maybe I was a catalyst to some of it.''
Annacone said they talk every day, sometimes for 20 seconds and sometimes for 30 minutes. They also work together on the court, in varying amounts.
"Whatever needs to be done,'' he said. "It's very practically applicable.''
This was never about age. It was about a mentality. It was about stubbornness.
The clock isn't ticking anymore. We'll have to see, though, whether Federer will still have the nerve to rip backhands against Nadal at 4-all in the fifth set of a major final.
But at least if they do play Sunday, it won't be one player in HD and one in black-and-white.