Friday, January 25, 2008

NO MATTER HOW YOU CUT IT, THE ERA HAS ENDED

That's right - the best player in the world, 12-time grand slam champion Roger Federer, choked away the first set, and his best chance to retain the Australian Open title he has held for the last 2 years.

It happens.

That is not to take away from the outstanding performance of Novak Djokovic, who's play throughout the tournament has been nearly flawless, didn't choke, and was able to come up with the goods when it counted. There are a lot of people who couldn't believe it would happen until the moment it did, and even held out hope during the 3rd set tie-break that if Federer could have mustered a way to win it, he would have found a way to make a stunning comeback.

But at the end of the day, when Fed had to be at his best he wasn't, and when Djokovic had to be at his best he was. No matter how you cut it, this is indicative of a change in men's tennis. Because for four years, we have come to expect nothing but the best from Federer, particularly at later stages in the tournament, and it hasn't been since the same tournament in 2005 that Federer has exited in the penultimate round of the tournament. But with this victory, Djokovic has shown that not only is Federer beatable on a surface other than clay, but that he is beatable at a stage when he was, for so long, unflappable.

This is the second victory for Djokovic over Federer, and many observing the US Open final of 2007 felt that today's result is one that could have occurred at Flushing Meadow had Djokovic held his nerve. As it were, it took another six months before the Serbian with confidence and personality was finally able to over come the fear of losing when he damn well knows he should win.

It will be interesting to see how Federer responds to this, given that he has no coach, and certainly had designs on winning the grand slam in 2008. Now he will have to wait until Roland Garros to restore his pedigree, and in the mean time will need to find answers to some questions that have been raised by his failure in Australia.

First, his consistency. Looking at the statistics, Federer had only slightly less than twice the number of errors as winners, and his serve seemed to be a telling factor. In truth, his serve saved him at Wimbledon last year against Nadal, where his 30 aces seemed to come at the most opportune times. But in Australia, unable to come up with the serves to hold when he needed to, the rest of his game was left to bear the burden of the moment, and it was not up to the task.

Tactically, Federer's game has always been one that is based on control of the points from the baseline, with a willful search for opportunities to approach. And where he had trouble in 2007 was against players who were able to take control of the points from the back, pin him behind the baseline, and assert their own designs on the rallies. In this context, Federer, like any other player, struggled to win critical points from the baseline. The winners coming from his heavily targeted backhand were few and far between. And his forehand, once the most dominating weapon in men's tennis, was too often astray at crucial moments.

At the end of 2007 in Shanghai, it seemed Federer had made an important tactical adjustment that allowed him to romp to his second straight YEC. Following his surprising defeat to Fernando Gonzalez, an anomaly that he wouldn't repeat for the remainder of the tournament, he began taking every opportunity presented to him to approach the net. Federer attacked his opponents, and mitigated his inability to control the points from the back court. Rather than try to find a way to step inside the baseline and dictate, he rushed the net to devastating effect, and his path to the final left the remaining top 8 players in the world in his wake.

In Australia, the speed of the court prevented him from rushing as early and opportunistically as in Shanghai, and as such, puts a big question mark next to his chances of winning the French Open. Until somebody goes out and beats Nadal for the first time at Roland Garros, he will remain the favorite to win that title, but what of the other grand slams? Wimbledon would seem to present him with the best chance to return to the formula that won him Shanghai, but Nadal is fast improving at this venue, and Djokovic will have taken heart from his victory in Australia.

And when the hard court season begins in summer, will these problems resurface?

For sure, Federer lost to the better player today - Djokovic is yet to lose a set, and unless Tsonga turns in a similar performance to his demolition of Nadal in the other semi-final, it's hard to imagine any image other than that of Djokovic raising the Australian trophy. To be fair, although Djokovic is the younger player, Tsonga has less experience on these grand occasions and recent history does not look favorably on upstart finalists in this situation.

But either way, somebody other than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will lift a grand slam trophy for first time since January of 2005 - nearly 3 years, and as such, it certainly is the end of an era.
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