Friday, January 24, 2014

Evaluating Roger Federer's Australian Open

As I was thinking about the fact that Roger Federer's Australian Open 2014 is over and processing his semifinal loss to Nadal, I was remembering back to two weeks ago.  The draw had come out and Federer fans were reacting with dismay about the "draw from hell."  In order to win the title he would have to go through, most likely, four top 10 players.  It seemed impossible, especially given that we still weren't quite sure what to expect with his form, and to be honest were still a bit gun shy from the previous 12 months.

Now here we are two weeks later and, sure, we would have loved to see him find a way to get through Nadal for the first time in quite a while and get to an all-Swiss final with his compatriot and friend Stan Wawrinka, who reached his first grand slam final after an intense battle with Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinal.  But look at what Roger did accomplish in the last two weeks!  He played some absolutely brilliant and beautiful tennis in several of his matches, looking confident once again, being aggressive and coming forward, presumably helped by the influence of new part-time coach Stefan Edberg.  He took out Jo Wilfred Tsonga in straight sets, who much of the time just looked rather confused as to what he could possibly do against someone playing so well, and he also got past Wimbledon winner Andy Murray.  Though there was a little blip in the confidence and level of play to drop a set in that one, he still closed it out in four.

Of course, the complication came when he had to face his nemesis once again, the kryptonite that he just can't seem to figure out, Rafael Nadal.  I thought he might have what it took to find a way to get it done this time, given his recent aggressive play and new found confidence.  But Nadal knows the formula he needs to continue to beat him, along with raising his game to an incredible level every time he plays Roger.  It definitely is discouraging while watching it, hoping he can turn the tide and then seeing hope slip away.  In fact, once the second set was done and I knew it was virtually impossible, I didn't finish watching the match since it was the middle of the night for me  But even though it always hurts to see that head-to-head continue to get even more lopsided, the depressing thoughts didn't last for long.  Here's why.

As I noted above, two weeks ago it looked impossible.  I didn't even know if he would get past the 4th round, and here he was in the semis with the possibility of getting to the final and winning the whole thing.  Plus, as mentioned, he beat top 10 players and he made massive improvements in his level of play.  Last year I would often watch in fear because so often the ball sailed crazily long, or was shanked, or some other such error that was so uncharacteristic.  But in the last two weeks that has been so much improved.  Instead his shots were often finding their mark, many times with sounds of awe from the spectators as the magician once again came up with something truly special.  He seems to be adjusting well to his new larger racquet, and it will only improve as he continues to get used to it and find out all that it can do.  And Roger himself said that he didn't expect to be playing his best until March or April.  

While we can greedily wish that he had won the title in Brisbane and that he could have beaten Nadal to have a chance at another AO title, the fact of the matter is that he has started out 2014 very, very well.  And it looks to only be improving from here.  Though he will drop to #8 in the rankings, he has little points to defend until the end of the year and can thus play without a lot of pressure, just continuing to improve his level of confidence with the racquet and his own form with a (hopefully) healthy back.  I think there is much to look forward to in the next months for the fans of Roger Federer.

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