It was no surprise that Roger Federer breezed through the first three rounds of the 2013 US Open. Even though his ranking has faltered, dropping now to number seven after his amazing resurgence in 2012 that saw him briefly regain the number one ranking, we still expect him to win. He’s Roger Federer. Watching Federer is, as David Foster Wallace described, a religious experience. After his loss to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round of the US Open and his early exit at Wimbledon, we are now wondering, what’s happened to Roger?
Is Age Catching Up to Him?
The logical answer is that he is simply getting old. Age eventually brings down our greatest sports icons. Yet Federer is only 32. Michael Jordan was just beginning his second run of domination at 32. Watching Federer against Robredo, it appeared that Federer was the better player. His grace on the court is still evident. His agility is there as his incredible shot making ability. He still shows that he is the most technically proficient tennis player in the history of tennis. So where is the drop off?
Is it Something Physical?
Physical concerns are always an issue with age, especially with tennis players. The game is violent on the joints. Think of this. A tennis player goes from a near sprint to a complete stop, applying an enormous amount of pressure on the knees, hips, and back. It’s one thing to do this on grass or clay where the softer surface provides more give, but on the hard courts, the body takes a beating. Every tennis player is eventually going to limp off the court.
But Federer has avoided most of these physical ailments. He has never missed an extended amount of playing time. Why? Probably because he is the most relaxed tennis player we’ve ever seen. Compare a still shot of Federer striking a ball with one of Nadal.
Tension causes more injuries than athletes tend to realize. Federer has remained healthy because of his ability to relax. I’m sure he’s employed some form of autogenic training along with meditation to achieve this level of calmness on the court. Despite a sore back in the early summer, Federer went into the US Open claiming to be completely healthy. He certainly looked physically healthy.
So why is Roger losing?
I’ve always argued that the difference between the number 1 player in the world and the number 100 is actually quite small. Let’s look first at why Roger was winning. When he was at his peak, he was about 1 point per game better than the lower ranked opponents. 1 point per game doesn’t seem like that much separation, but it will get you results like 6-2, 6-1. Why was Roger better? Of course there’s his technical proficiency. Secondly, he had superior shot making ability from defensive positions (i.e. his squash shot).
Thirdly, for ten years he has been mentally dominant. This is where he gained separation from the top players. Against top 40 players, he was probably about 0.5 points better per game and against top ten players, a little less than that. Compared to the top tier of players who all had similar technical proficiency and shot making ability, Federer maintained a consistent edge because he believed he had an edge and because he did everything in his power to ensure that his opponents would not have the belief. This is mental dominance.
It reminds me of a scene in Orson Card’s Ender’s Game when Ender explains why he continued to beat up a bully even after he’d knocked him down.
“Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too.”
Federer had to win just about all his matches to maintain his aura of invincibility and plant a seed in every opponent’s mind that they could not beat him. With the exception of Nadal, he succeeded in this. There was no saving it for just the big tournaments. He brought it every tournament, playing with the fear that if lost just once to somebody, maybe, just maybe they might begin to believe they could beat him. One of the most dangerous weapons an opponent can have is belief.
Then Nadal beat him on grass. Then Djokovic and Murray, which shouldn’t have been that farfetched because in ability they were equals. The only thing that had previously prevented them from beating Federer was the lack of belief they could beat Federer.
With others knowing he could be beaten, he lost the mental edge he had held over his opponents for so many years.
But losing to Robredo? And then Igor Stakhovsky? How could this happen? Federer blamed his losses on confidence, but this is only part of the bigger picture.
Where has he slipped?
I remember a comment Pete Sampras made shortly after he retired from tennis. He said that the biggest deterioration with age is not physical. It’s mental.
It’s mentally exhausting being the best. Physically, Federer feels fine which is why it’s so hard for him to understand why he’s losing and why he legitimately seems baffled when he does lose. He still strikes the ball as solidly as he ever has. He has not lost a step as some analysts maintain. He just gives up a few more free points than he used to. Tiny slips in concentration. A fraction worse than before. But when the margins are so small, especially with the top players, wins turn to losses.
Mental slippage? Really?
As brutal as tennis is on the body, it may be more brutal on the mind, at least for people blessed/cursed with the compulsive desire to be the best. Training the mind to concentrate for extended periods of time takes practice. An interesting bi-product of this intense concentration is the seemingly absurd but true anomaly that when a top competitive tennis player comes off the court, he can recall every point in a match. They’re not consciously memorizing points; it’s just their level of focus is so high and they are so in tune with what’s going on that this notion becomes possible.
Thanks to mental toughness pioneers such as Dr. Jim Loehr, the techniques for staying focused and relaxed has advanced in tennis as much as the technology in equipment and the understanding of biomechanics. Free points are harder to come by and top players no longer have the luxury of being able to slip in and out of focus like McEnroe and Connors did when they had their outbursts or interactions with the crowd. It used to be that “being in the zone” was a rare achievement. Now, it’s a daily necessity. There are those who argue that tennis has become more boring because the personalities have become much more subdued. But I prefer watching the mental giants like Federer because simply because it’s incredible what they’re doing out there, sustaining excellence point after point. Mental giants can be intimidating in a quiet way.
A male tennis player has to sustain focus for three to four hours (sometimes even more) in a closely contested three-out-of-five set match. The normal amount of time the human mind can maintain uninterrupted concentration is about two hours. (However, with the vast number of diversions available to us, we are probably evolving—or devolving—to the point where even two hours is a stretch.) This is why movies typically do not run much longer than two hours and when they do, the audience begins to feel fatigued. This is why professional poker players immediately stop playing when they feel mentally fatigued.
In competition, or when the stakes really matter (in a war zone perhaps), we can push our minds to do a little more. But pushing the mind like this is impossible to sustain forever. Even chess players retire. Federer has done this week in and week out for over ten years, not just staying atop the rankings, but pummeling his opponents. Because of his success, he has played more matches than anyone else. But now the mental strain is beginning to show even before the physical deterioration. During his fourth round loss against Robredo, the shots were there, but there were a few more loose points than we would expect to see from Federer.
What to Expect from Federer Looking Forward
There’s no doubt Federer continues to have the competitive desire to be the best, and I disagree completely with those who suggest Federer should retire or that he’s even lost a step. Physically, he should be able to compete with the best for the next three or for years. If he rests and refreshes mentally, he should be able to put together a run like he did to end the 2012 season. But the days of dominating day after day, week after week, year after year are over. Unfortunately, the human mind can be pushed only so far.