Boxing, like tennis, is a physical confrontation of two individuals who can possess diametrically opposed skill sets. When the contrast is stark, fascinating match ups and results often ensue. The one thing that differentiates boxing from tennis is that in order to become the best boxer in the world, you have to beat whoever is considered to already be the best in the world. In tennis, the head to head match ups are merely a means to an end of winning the tournaments, and it is by the latter measure that we rate a player's overall quality, but both sports are inherently head-to-head competitions. Therefore consistent head-to-head supremacy, or at least parity, over most of one's contemporaries, is key to a tennis player's place in history.
Sugar Ray Leonard was a boxer who, at his peak, possessed many of the same technical qualities that Roger Federer possesses as a tennis player. The combination of being both broadly and (ostensibly) deeply skilled in so many areas of the game, coupled with an ability to identify an opponents weaknesses and adjust one's tactics and technique to exploit it, are two of the things that made Sugar Ray a great boxer, and the exact same thing can be said of Roger Federer. That the two share these characteristics is interesting, but what is more interesting is that if either of them did/does not to employ the full breadth of their skill set, either by choice or by force, both are susceptible to another technical and tactical approach that is similar across both sports - that of the bruiser.
Roberto Duran was a boxer from Panama of great pride and determination, to which his success in the ring was as often attributed as anything else. But the one element of Duran's pedigree as a boxer that didn't go unnoticed in that world, that of persistently overwhelming his opponents into submission, is rarely seen as a particular skill or quality in tennis. But it is equally effective, and also happens to be the perfect foil, for either a boxer or a tennis player who appears to have the more aesthetically appealing repertoire. Not unlike the way Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro, whose best quality is the ability to bludgeon the their opponents until they eventually either elicit an error or hit an outright knockout punch. Duran's skill set may not have been as broad or possibly even as deep as Sugar Ray's, but because Duran lulled Leonard into trying to beat him at his game, a game of which Duran was a master, he appeared to fight the perfect fight and he soundly beat Leonard in their first encounter. The same could be said of Federer's most recent losses to his gargantuan and hammer wielding nemeses.
Federer and Leonard share a certain quality in their best modus operandus - they both appear to have limitless breadth and depth of skill. But the reality revealed by his bomb dropping rivals is that Federer's skills, although broad, are not equally deep in all areas. As a matter of fact, while his breadth of skill allows him to more readily conceal those areas where his skills are shallow, if for some reason he can be forced to dig deep in those areas of weakness, those shortcomings bubble to the surface, and as a result, Federer can be made to look surprisingly ordinary. The real question is what is the common trait between those players who have had some recent relative success over Federer, and are those traits innate or by tactical design.
Losing to Andy Murray in Shanghai is nothing new to Federer - not only does he have a losing historical head to head, all three times they've played at that venue he has lost - so the result should come as no surprise. What does tickle the intellectual curiosity is the case of Tomas Berdych at the US Open and Juan Martin del Potro in Basel. Berdych and Federer have split their last six meetings, and while del Potro has only won the latest of their last seven, all of their encounters since the French Open have gone the distance and he actually won the latest. And of course, upon further review, it seems there are some similarities between the two players that give insight into the inherent weaknesses in Federer's game - yes, he does have weaknesses.
When Federer plays either of these two, and has the audacity to attempt to beat them at their own game, which is to say to out hit them from the baseline, the results are clearly much worse than when he technically and tactically circumvents the strengths of these two players with variety, changes of pace, direction, height, spin and angle. Pound for pound, Federer actually cannot hit these two off the court, and in all likelihood, that's the case for most of the heaviest hitters on tour. His best bet is to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, vary the direction, depth, angle, spin and location of his deliveries. But, if Federer either chooses, or is forced, to stand toe to toe with either of these behemoths, he may get away with it from time to time, but over the long run, his chances of winning the match plummet. He may score a few good rounds, but at the end of the day, he's going down and going down hard.
Now I don't want to delve too deeply into the psychological, because I've never met him, and can only speculate, but one has to assume that not only does Federer believe that, in terms of his skill set, he is a far superior player to the vast majority of players he faces on tour, but that this is doubly so with two players whose main strengths are their ability to consistently hit hard flat shots in the same direction until an error or an opening is elicited. Both del Potro and Berdych are big players who move well for big men, but have limited movement in the abstract, limited further by two-handed backhands, and a tendency to position themselves closer to their own backhand corners. They lack not only the aesthetic qualities of Federer's game, but even the technical capacity to hit a wide variety of shots, from a wide variety of positions.
That's where one has to wonder if it also irritates the hell out of Federer that he has so much trouble beating them even if he does go toe to toe with them, as in, "I have more ability in my finger than they have in their arm, so why am I the one who has to adjust his game?" Or, "I'm good enough that I should be able to beat this guy at his own game, let alone my game." And here, competitive pride, or perhaps to some degree, hubris, conspires with the natural condition of the match up, to create the perfect storm of an inexplicable inability to do to them, what he normally does to so many others.
When Leonard fought Duran for the second time, he fought an entirely different fight - no more mucking with machismo and other attempts to prove how big his balls were - he feinted one way and jabbed, feinted another way, and jabbed, and dug in for combinations just long enough to score points, but more importantly not long enough for Duran to do the same. The display was so meticulous and so disciplined, combined with Duran's irritation, and the realization that he was going to lose, the effect was to pave the way for an early dismissal. In boxing, it's rare that a fighter quits in the middle of a fight - not so in tennis. They may go through the motions, but often a player is beaten long before match point, and this is most often the case when Federer displays the full breadth of his skills and his opponent, who may have a winning game and/or strategy, realizes that Federer has one too many ways to keep him from executing it.
Because Berdych and del Potro are both at the (idiotically named) ATP World Tour Finals this week, with del Potro in Federer's group, and (Berdych still with a chance at qualifying for the semi-finals if he can get a result of Tsonga...possible and Djokovic...unlikely), it would be interesting to see if Federer decides he's going to try to beat them at their own game and loses to them...again.
Because I think he'd love to win this title, I think he'll go with the altogether more fitting and successful approach of being Sugar Ray Roger.