Federer Looks to Wimbledon To Cure What Ails Him

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The New York Sun

WIMBLEDON, England – He won the first Grand Slam event of the year, reached the final of the second, and has lost four matches all season. After the most disappointing loss of his career at the French Open final, he knocked the clay out of his sneakers and marched on to Halle, Germany, where the transition to grass, though precarious at times, proved incapable of keeping him from his fifth title in six months.

Indeed, when the facts are laid out, it seems absurd to ask whether Roger Federer is vulnerable. What else can be expected of a man? No tennis great, not Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe or Pete Sampras, won every final, much less every match. In the last year and a half, Federer has lost eight times, and most of those contests have gone the distance.

Yet it is because Federer has been so impossibly good that his recent performances have people wondering if is this the year that the three-time defending Wimbledon champion will fail to survive the fortnight. Perhaps his confidence is diminished after a listless performance at Roland Garros against Rafael Nadal, the only man who has beaten the world no. 1 this year (albeit four times). Perhaps several sloppy victories in Halle, including a match where he came within a point of losing, indicate poor form, tired legs, or an exhausted mind. Then there’s the matter of Federer’s Wimbledon draw, which has as many challenges as a wildcard might expect to face during an improbable title run.

Yesterday, Federer would not pay those concerns any mind. He insisted that he felt great – and he said he meant it this time, unlike last year when he came to his opening press conference with his “poker face” on despite feeling terrible. While he admitted his draw is less than ideal, he showed little concern.

“As a no. 1 seed and a seed in general, I think it’s one of the toughest draws I’ve gotten,” he said. “But to win the tournament, you’ve got to beat everybody, so that’s obviously my aim.”

First up this afternoon, weather permitting, is Richard Gasquet, the talented Frenchman who defeated Federer on clay last year and nearly beat him in Halle. The opponents who follow are no less dangerous: fan favorite Tim Henman in the second round and, farther along, Tomas Berdych, a hard-serving Czech; Mario Ancic, the last man to beat Federer on grass (in 2002); and perhaps David Nalbandian or James Blake.

Trying as this draw may be, it’s welcome news for spectators. At long last, the member-in-chief of the All England Club might have to sweat a little before hoisting the winner’s trophy. As resplendent as Federer’s game has been at Wimbledon, it’s become a bit tiring to watch him kick around his opponents like so many lumps of dirt. The master needs a test, for his own good, and for ours.

If you have any doubts about Federer’s dominance these past three years, consider the cold facts. In three years, he has lost a mere four sets, and in games, he leads his opponents 415-244. He has lost his serve 21 times, once every three matches. Federer has never been late to dinner, either: on average, he’s spent less than two hours on court and been pushed past three sets only four times. His longest match? Two hours and 35 minutes against Nicolas Kiefer in the third round last year. His shortest? Fifty-three minutes against Alejandro Falla in the second round in 2004.

Most impressive, Federer has returned serve exceptionally well on grass, despite the server’s distinct advantage. In three years, Federer watched an ace whistle by him a touch more than five times per match, about half as often as the average player at Wimbledon during the same span, according to data from the International Tennis Federation. Only two men, Feliciano Lopez and Ivo Karlovic, have outaced Federer in a Wimbledon match. Karlovic put up the most (14), a paltry sum for the 6-foot-10 Croat who thumps serves as if he were wielding a sledgehammer. Federer has collected 97 breaks of serve in three years, equal to 4.6 per match.

One would expect these sparkling figures to lose some of their luster this year. The 20-year-old Gasquet has a dazzling backhand and enough variety, if not mental fortitude, to make him a winner on any surface, as he proved this weekend by defending his grasscourt title at the Red Letter Days Open in Nottingham, England. Henman’s play has fallen off sharply in the last year, but he pronounced himself fit and in fine form after a strong showing at Queen’s Club this month. The 20-year-old Berdych continues to bludgeon the ball, and he’s putting it between the lines with increasing frequency. He pushed Federer to three sets in the Halle final. Ancic lost to Federer in the French Open quarterfinals, and often looked splendid doing it. Perhaps only Federer, Andy Roddick, and Lleyton Hewitt understand grass more than the 22-year-old from Croatia.

James Blake, who starts at the bottom of Federer’s half of the draw, stands to benefit from any scrapes Federer might suffer if the two meet in the semifinals. Blake, speaking to reporters last week, said he did not expect Federer to play at anything less than his level best.

“He’ll be ready and he is definitely an overwhelming favorite,” Blake said. “I mean, winning three times in a row, it’s the way it was with Pete Sampras coming into Wimbledon.”

The Sampras comparison is apt. Like Federer, Sampras lost early in three out of his first four trips to Wimbledon, and didn’t win until his fifth try. Like Federer, he won three straight from ages 21 to 23. Like Federer this year, Sampras was the decided favorite in 1996 – but he faltered, losing in the quarterfinals before running off another four in a row for a record-tying seven titles.

Will Federer suffer the same fate? One thing is for certain, he’ll accept no trophy for breaking Borg’s 41-match streak on grass courts with a win in the first round.

“I wouldn’t want one,” he said. “You get a trophy at the end of a tournament.”

At Wimbledon, Federer usually gets what he wants.


The New York Sun

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