For Stanislas Wawrinka, the US Open was the best of times. For Roger Federer, it was the worst of times.
Wawrinka, always thought of as “the other player from Switzerland,” had routed defending champion Andy Murray to reach the semifinals. Federer, widely considered “the greatest player of all time,” was upset by Tommy Robredo in the fourth round. For the first time in 35 Grand Slam appearances, Wawrinka advanced farther than Federer in the draw—a role reversal Wawrinka confided was “a strange feeling, for sure.”
Strange but true. It’s been obvious since the Australian Open that the Big Four of men’s tennis is no more. Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Murray have won an astounding 34 of the last 35 major titles. Sadly, the aging Federer, 32, had beaten only one top-10 player all year, hadn’t reached a major final for the first time since 2002, was humiliated by No. 116-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon, and had captured only one minor title (Halle).
Many Federer fans insist their hero should not be written off. They point out that after not winning a Grand Slam event for 2 ½ years, he grabbed his record-tying seventh Wimbledon crown in 2012. They also recall that Pete Sampras, another all-time great, captured his fourteenth and last major after a not winning a tournament for 18 months, a much steeper decline than Federer’s. Sampras, though, faced much weaker competition than the likes of Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray, as well as top-100 players inferior to those of today.
The analogy that best explains both of their downfalls is technical. Even though their playing styles have differed—Sampras served and volleyed nearly every point and Federer seldom does—both have suffered from vulnerable backhands. Much like the Sampras backhand in 2001−2002, the Federer backhand this year regressed from a relative weakness to a glaring weakness, one that opponents exploited mercilessly. That liability produced a severe “imbalance” in the Federer game, which was once so dazzling and ethereal that David Foster Wallace wrote a worshipful 2006 essay titled “Federer as a Religious Experience.”
To try to compensate for that backhand liability and resulting imbalance, both Sampras and Federer had to call on their serves and forehands to carry a much heavier load. Sampras’s serve (and volley), though not his forehand, could do it to some extent partly because he rarely hit backhands during his service games. Unfortunately, Federer’s serve averaged only 111 miles per hour (compared to 116-119 mph in his prime) and he struck only five aces during his 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 debacle against No. 19 Robredo, a foe he had soundly defeated in their ten previous matches. So Federer’s serve could not compensate.
Federer’s forehand, which had ranked with Nadal’s as the greatest in tennis history, could not compensate either since his backhand weakness put him in defensive positions and on his back foot. As a result, the no-longer Mighty Fed seldom dictated rallies, as he often had during his 2003−2007 prime, when he won 12 of his record 17 major titles against the weakest men’s field in the past 20 years.
Frustrated and not thinking clearly—now a mere mortal—he also made tactical errors. “Federer positioned himself too far behind the baseline for his shots to have much potency,” former world No. 4 Gene Mayer, now a coach, pointed out. “Second, Federer kept directing his shots to Robredo’s backhand rather than hitting the ball to his forehand to then force Robredo to hit running backhands, his least effective scenario. Third, Federer, much like Sampras, fell in love with his ineffective topspin backhand and didn’t use his slice backhand enough to neutralize Robredo’s attacks. Both Federer and Sampras would probably have been better players with two-handed backhands.”
Indeed, these days it doesn’t require Nadal’s viciously spinning forehand or swerving lefty slice serves to severely punish Federer’s vulnerable backhand. Against Stakhovsky, a flatter-hitting, right-handed power player at Wimbledon, Federer converted only 1 of 8 break chances and won just 23% (26 of 109) of first serve return points. After No. 37-ranked Jurgen Melzer beat Stakhovsky in four sets, converting 85% (6 of 7) of his break point chances, he explained how: “You go out there and show him that I’m not Roger Federer and I can return his serve and make him play tough volleys.”
Federer’s one-handed backhand is especially vulnerable in the ad court—where the vast majority of break points are played—when he is pulled wide against righty kick serves and lefty slices. That showed even against Robredo’s relatively light delivery, which averaged 106 mph for first serves and 89 mph for second serves. The killer stat: Federer converted only 2 of 16 break point chances and 0 of 6 in the final set. If you can’t break serve, you can’t win, unless you win tiebreakers, and Robredo easily won their first-set tiebreaker, 7-3. In Federer’s 12 losses this season, he has a poor 3-6 tiebreaker record.
Since Federer has vowed to compete until the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, what should—what can—he do to prevent his decline from becoming embarrassing?
Desperate times often require major changes. Federer switched from a 90-square-inch racket head to 98 square inches after Wimbledon. The experiment failed—he then lost to No. 114 Federico Delbonis, and No. 55 Daniel Brands and —so he switched back to his 90-square-inch frame for the U.S. hard-court circuit. In retrospect, a veteran champion with finely tuned strokes should make a more reasonable change to 95 square inches and during the off-season when he doesn’t have to worry about short-term results.
Darren Cahill, the former Australian Davis Cupper and coach of Andre Agassi, advised: “He should stick with the new frame and commit to it. The sweet spot on his old 90-inch frame is so small that you have to hit the ball perfectly. Every time he slightly mishits the ball, the ball just fluffs into the bottom of the net.” Chris Evert, an 18-time major winner in singles, suggested Federer “go into the gym and get a bigger upper body and become a little more muscular” because “it might put five miles per hour more on his serve.”
In his press conference after losing to Robredo, a disconsolate Federer conceded he lacked his former confidence, “Yeah, probably. Confidence takes care of all the things you don’t usually think about.” Even so, his lack of confidence is not the cause of his losses this year; it’s the effect of his stroke deficiencies, most notably his backhand, and losing a half-step of his once-renowned speed.
ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe put it well: “When your mind starts to work too much, and you’ve been as great as Federer has been for so long, it has to be difficult. And it’s kind of hard to watch, to be honest.”
Mats Wilander, who ranked No. 1 in 1988 when he captured three of his seven major singles titles before continuing with some extended breaks until 1996 and enduring much-diminished results, takes a contrarian’s view. “Personally, I pray that he keeps playing for two more years. I’d love to see him struggle and talk about it, because then we can learn something from that. I can’t learn anything from what Roger Federer did in the middle of the 2000s. Nor can he,” Wilander told the New York Times.
“I think it brings you back down to earth and then suddenly you become part of the human race again, because when you are No. 1 in the world, it’s hard not to feel the world revolves around you. But if you fight through the whole thing, have the ups and downs, you come down to earth and you realize you were so fortunate winning so much and now you are just happy to be part of history and really feel how much you love the sport. I think if you step away at the wrong time you sort of create this false bubble.”
As superstars go, family man Federer, who travels with his wife and twin daughters and has a philanthropic foundation, is quite grounded and certainly not mired in a “false bubble.” The likely scenario now of a succession of early- and middle-round defeats won’t tarnish Federer’s incomparable legacy. But does anyone want to see him miss shots he used to make with almost magical ease and lose to opponents he used to outclass? Not if you remember when Muhammad Ali could no longer float like a butterfly and sting like a bee and was brutally pummeled—or when the aging Willie Mays, no longer a prodigious hitter and majestic centerfielder, pathetically dropped routine fly balls.
It’s too late to quit with one glorious last hurrah as Sampras did. But Federer, no matter how passionate his love for tennis and how proud he is of his prowess, should recognize that he cannot defeat Father Time. He should retire soon—for his sake and ours.
How Stan Became a New Man
On his left forearm, Stanislas Wawrinka displays a tattoo of a Samuel Beckett quote that has become his credo: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Even with Wawrinka’s positive attitude, many in the tennis world wondered whether the likeable Swiss, who finished the past five years ranked from No. 13 to No. 21, would ever become an elite player and contend for a Grand Slam title. In a stroke of good fortune he hired Magnus Norman as coach, an overachiever who ranked No. 2 and reached the 2000 French Open final. The two clicked immediately.
“For sure, Magnus helped me with my confidence,” said Wawrinka. “We are similar because we both think everything comes from the practice side. That’s what has made the difference.” (Interestingly, Norman knows first-hand how vital confidence is in a mano a mano sport. As a pro, he lacked it to such an extent that his coach put one of his trophies inside the front door, so whenever Norman left his hotel room, he would be reminded how good a player he really was.)
Three other factors account for Wawrinka’s breakthrough year and his breakthrough major at Flushing Meadows. The first was his superbly played 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 12-10 fourth-round loss to No. 1 Djokovic at the Australian Open in January. What could have proved dispiriting instead turned into a career-changing experience.
“That meant so much for my confidence,” recalled Wawrinka. “I am quite an unsure guy on the court, I always have some doubts and after that match I had the feeling that everything I was doing outside, the practice, was in the right direction. I just needed to keep focusing on that because my level was there and I could play for five hours against the No. 1 player and, though it was a loss, for me it was a victory inside. Tennis is very much in the head, the top 20 players play amazing tennis but the changes are in here, mentally. Now I am not young  and I am much more mature.”
The sturdily built 6-foot, 185-pound Wawrinka considers clay his best surface, and big wins started coming in the spring. He upset No. 2 Murray at the Monte Carlo Masters, No. 4 David Ferrer at Oeiras, Portugal, and No. 6 Tomas Berdych and No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Madrid Masters. He then displayed mental toughness to knock off No. 9 Richard Gasquet 8-6 in the fifth set to make the Roland Garros quarterfinals for the first time. By defeating both Murray and Berdych again at the US Open, he’s amassed seven wins over top-10 players this year, trailing only Nadal and Djokovic, and moved into the top 10 himself.
Wawrinka believes family life with his wife Ilham and their three-year-old daughter Alexia has matured him, and that has given him greater focus and stability resulting in his best pro season. “I think this year what I do better is when I’m not having a good day, I still play good,” he explained. “In the past, when I had some bad days, I was playing really bad, and I was losing matches that I should win.”
The last factor involves his sometimes-misunderstood “second-fiddle” relationship with the legendary Federer. “A lot of people for many years tell me, ‘Oh, you’re not lucky to have Roger in the same generation,’ I always say no. I take the positives,” clarifies Wawrinka. “When I arrived, I was young, so for sure I was a little bit behind him. For myself, as a shy guy, it was better. And then I had the chance to practice so many times with the No. 1 player, to have advice from him, to play Davis Cup, to play Olympics. So I can only be thankful for him, that’s for sure.”
That practice and advice helped hone Wawrinka’s powerful and versatile game as well as made him a smart tactician. He displayed both in demolishing Murray 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in a stunning US Open quarterfinal. Wawrinka, hardly the boastful type, issued something between a prediction and a warning before the match: “Except for one or two matches Murray and I have had some big battles. Because of the contrast of our games, we find a way to play well against each other. I am sure he will not be 100 percent confident because he knows how well I can play and he has had some difficult matches against me.”
The usually clever Murray found himself outwitted as well as outhit and outfought. Copying Federer tactics, Wawrinka often slice-served wide in the deuce court and kick-served wide in the ad court to pull Murray out of position to start points. Similarly, he constructed points by hitting crosscourt topspin forehands that landed about a yard beyond the service line and about two feet inside the sideline and then dictated rallies. In yet another slick Federer maneuver, he stroked a short crosscourt slice backhand that put reluctant net-rusher Murray in an uncomfortable position. It worked. Murray won only 45% (10 of 22) net points.
Against one of the sport’s premier serve returners, Wawrinka’s somewhat unorthodox serve, averaging a potent 118 mph for first serves, helped him win a terrific 88% of first serve points and didn’t give the Brit a single break point opportunity. Almost as impressive, Wawrinka came to net often and grabbed 74% (31 of 42) of those points.
“Murray was totally, thoroughly outplayed by Stan Wawrinka, who has really come into his own in his late 20s,” commented John McEnroe, TV analyst and 1980s superstar. “It was a tremendous performance. Yes, he has the firepower; he had Murray on the defensive the entire day. But Wawrinka has become such a heady player, and he has a lot of heart as well. He had Murray frustrated beyond belief.”
Wawrinka continued his masterful shot-making and smart tactics in his first Grand Slam semifinal against Djokovic despite a painful right thigh strained late in the first set. Starting fast, he broke Djokovic’s serve—which had been broken only five times in five previous matches—three times in the opening set.
When Wawrinka blasted groundstrokes into the corners, he cleverly wrong-footed the blazing-fast Serb. When he couldn’t pass Djokovic outright, he conjured up dipping passing shots. To keep Djokovic guessing, Wawrinka occasionally sliced low-bouncing backhands, a good tactic against Djokovic’s semi-Western forehand. When he saw the retrieving Djokovic forced to hit a floating slice backhand, he swooped in for put-away volleys. On big points, the Swiss confounded the game’s best serve returner with body serves that handcuffed Djokovic.
Eventually, though, just as he did eight months ago in Melbourne, the determined Djokovic pulled out another gruelling marathon victory—this time 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, lasting 4 hours and 9 minutes.
“I gave everything. I fought until the end,” said the valiant Wawinka, whose recor
d against No. 1 players dropped to 0-13. “These matches are what we live for, what we practice for,” said the tireless Djokovic, whose record in five-set matches improved to 20-7.
Stan should be the man to watch in coming months. “He’s at that level of Berdych, Del Potro, Tsonga now, and he’s capable of going to the next level,” said Cahill.
At last, Wawrinka is no longer overshadowed by Federer. As this late-bloomer remarked after Federer was eliminated, “Of course, I wish he was here. But it is about me now.”
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