The Emperor’s dilemma – Roger Federer’s battle against time

The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Four

Roger Federer

It is raining in heaven and Roger Federer’s umbrella will not open. The great man, who was used to winning matches without so much as breaking a sweat, is getting wet and feeling washed out.

The expansive Centre court at the Uniprix Stadium in Montreal is all set to pine for the balletic feet of the missing maestro. Even as the Hard – Deco Turf bears the brunt of the gladiators’ grinding feet, under the empathetic gaze of the prized Mark Roberts’ Optical Crystal, it will long for a man whose feet caressed her many wounds over the years with his balletic grace.

Only three men are missing from the top twenty. The most conspicuous among them though shall be Federer, who is nursing his back just as much as he might be his soul.

Nearly 32, it cannot be much of a surprise that Federer has been pushed into an inevitable battle with time. Unlike in the past, when the opponent was merely a prop meant to exaggerate his many brilliant hues, Federer is now forced to deal with his emboldened rivals.

Not long ago, they would make their way to the middle, content with having the best seat in the house.

The same men are now turning out in their best battle fatigue, knowing the emperor is dealing with a shadow that is tying him in knots. As he fumbles in the acres around his palace, the soldiers who were employed to sing his hymn are haunting his dreams and hunting him during the day. For a man with nothing left to accomplish, it might be a great temptation to screw his face at those mismatched enemies and retire to a beautiful chateau somewhere in the Alps.

But then great men aren’t wired like that, are they? His recent run of dismal results isn’t sitting too well with Federer. The Swiss was never too graceful in his losses and he stretched belief recently when he wondered aloud about his ranking – “fourth, fifth, third, what is it” he shot back at a reporter, who dared to ask him about his decline.

Knowing that he remembers points and scores from his junior days, Federer betrayed himself and gave away the fraying edges of his bespoke ego.

His back has been a persistent issue, just as much as the suddenly shanked stroke for no rhyme or reason. And both issues are getting magnified as the years advance for Federer. It is apparently taking longer now for Federer to recover from a strain in the back than it did in the past. And even when he did have a problem with it, Federer found a way to mask his pain and prevail over his opponents.

Not any longer. The shanks are also coming at inopportune times off both flanks, proving expensive for the beleaguered Swiss man. It is a tribute to his passion that he is willing to probe within for the answers to the many vexing questions that might be hovering in his mind space floating like thick dark clouds.

ATP World Tour Finals - Day Eight

When winning is almost a way of life, it must hurt deeply to be at the receiving end against journeymen that have derailed him in the recent past.

After years of playing with a 90” stick, Federer has recently started to experiment with a 98”. Racket changes are a mighty challenge even for men in their prime, so it will be very interesting to see how Federer fares with the new package.

Will he be able to find some insurance in the larger sweet spot or will the lack of feeling for the new racket hurt him even more? There are questions for which not just Federer, but an entire army of international fans, wait impatiently for some answers.

It is fascinating though to watch Federer live through this phase of recalibration. The tennis circuit is a maddening circus and the fact that a prolific player like Federer even retains the taste for pursuit is a thing to marvel at. In the coming weeks and months, we shall experience the thrill of watching Federer explore the depths of his intriguing neural networks to try and discover a way out his current slump.

Just for perspective, it is indeed amazing that the great man is even willing to take up this exercise in painful exploration at this stage in his illustrious career.

We ought to enjoy the journey – because Federer is going to try and find ways to improve his serve, which is no longer the weapon it was; gain consistency off his lyrical backhand – he has been trying to pick the ball off earlier than in the past to get the bounce out of the equation and finally get the rhythm back on his divinely aesthetic forehand. If he eventually decides to do all of this with a new racket or his tested 90” is something that even Federer might struggle to answer immediately.

In a season where the veteran genius managed to win just a single title, things might only get worse before turning sweeter, if at all. If Federer does not turn up in Cincinnati next week to defend his title, he will likely drop further down the ladder, possibly to seventh.

It is going to get increasingly harder for the serial winner to string together three physically demanding performances against the likes of Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic to find his 18th major.

It is appearing more and more likely that Federer will invest the rest of this season to relearn certain aspects of his game to make the adjustments necessary to deal with his ageing body and the brutal power of some of his opponents.

The Swiss maestro is faced with sudden and stark choices – whether to reinvent and discover new methods to prolong his career or tread the tested path and walk away quietly into the darkness of winter.

It isn’t an easy choice to make, but it is one that will define the final chapter of his glorious career.

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