In February 2014 Courtney Nguyen, now @WTAInsider but then a blogger with Sports Illustrated, had an eMail conversation with me that was published as “A Fan’s View – Roger Federer.”
As well as looking back at my origin story as a fan (playing hooky from work to watch Federer play Gaudio in the 2004 ATP Year End Championships in Houston) and reminiscence of the dominant years, Courtney asked me to look forward to the rest of 2014 and beyond. Was the back injury sustained by Federer in 2013 the reason for his slump? Would a bigger racquet (Fed had just made the switch to a 98” frame) pay dividends? Would Federer be able to stay competitive with the bigger guys?
Brad Delong, one of the top economics bloggers, talks often about “marking his beliefs to market” – in other words, testing your forecasts against actual outcomes to allow you to learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. So here we go. What did I say then, what turned out, and how do my predictions look with hindsight?
SI.com: I assume 2013 was a rough year for Federer fans. Watching him as much as you do, which match was the most surprising to you?
Burton: As you know, I’m a tennis stats geek: I’ve spent a lot of time charting players’ career arcs, and Federer, bless his heart, is following a well-trodden path. So I wasn’t stunned by 2013. I was disconcerted by his increasing physical fragility.
No single match was the most surprising. There were some early-round losses in the first part of 2013 to mid-level players — for example, Julien Benneteau in Rotterdam and Kei Nishikori in Madrid — which seemed odd. The loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon in the second round was a surprise, but I thought Stakhovskhy red-lined all match and took his chance when it came.
2018 view: Federer’s “increasing physical fragility” showed up later in 2014, most notably when he injured his back at the end of a dramatic London WTF semi final against Stan Wawrinka, then was unable to take the court for the final against Novak Djokovic. Federer then scrambled to get fit for the Davis Cup final against France in Lille. He was dominated by Gael Monfils in a straight sets loss on day 1, but Wawrinka’s own win and leadership in their Saturday doubles against Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet set the table for a tie clinching singles win over Gasquet on Sunday. Even in that match Federer apparently told his captain, Severin Luthi, that he might not be able to finish.
Federer went largely injury free in 2015, but 2016 was a different story – a horror story for Federer fans. A freak knee injury after the Australian Open required surgery; illness kept him from returning to the court in Miami; Federer picked up a back strain before Madrid, perhaps compensating for instability in his knee; then after choosing to miss Roland Garros, breaking a 64 tournament streak at the Grand Slam level, Federer played a below par grass court season, capped by a symbolic fall to the turf in a final set semi final loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon.
Federer chose to end his season then, and approached the 2017 Australian Open hoping to be fully competitive by mid year. As we know, he was quite competitive before then. But physical fragility is still a big part of the picture: Federer skipped the 2017 clay season entirely, and his summer North American hard court swing was affected by another back strain, this time in the Montreal final against Sascha Zverev. Federer had to pull out of Cincinnati, then gritted his way through the first four rounds at the US Open before Del Potro beat him in the quarter finals.
Increasing physical fragility? I’ll mark that at 75% correct.
SI.com: Toward the end of last season Federer said his back injury was the primary reason for his slump. Do you buy that?
Burton: After the disappointing loss to Stakhovsky, Federer decided to play two clay-court tournaments and test out a new racket. He played the Hamburg quarterfinal against Florian Mayer on a cold evening, and by the end of the second set Federer was just spinning his serves in and I knew his back had gone again. This was the fourth time Federer’s back had given out in tournaments in 18 months (Doha 2012, Wimbledon 2012 and Indian Wells 2013 were the others). Now it seemed like a chronic problem.
I’m pretty sure he thinks the back injury had a lot to do with disappointments, especially at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Apart from matches where he was clearly feeling a twinge, it affected his training schedule and tournament preparation, and likely his confidence and match game plans as well. I know he feels that when he couldn’t trust his back he couldn’t trust his ability to defend, so he feels that he wasn’t ready to play his best tennis.
It’s a strong argument, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Even with a clean bill of health, these days Nadal is a prohibitive favorite every time he plays Federer, and I’d argue that Federer is now the underdog against a healthy Murray or Djokovic. Unless he can bring something new to the table against these players — um, bigger hitting with a bigger stick? — the five or six years he gives away to the top guys will continue to kill him.
SI.com: You mentioned the bigger racket. Is that the change that will keep him competitive with the top guys?
Burton: It’s a racket, not a magic wand! Suppose we can turn the dial back to 2010: Federer is probably 50:50 vs. Murray and Djokovic on all surfaces, but a huge underdog against Nadal on clay and an underdog against Nadal on outdoor hard courts.
I read that one of Nadal’s coaches recently said something to the effect that Federer had the ability to turn the dial up to 11 for passages of play, but that he couldn’t sustain that level and could drop down to a 7, while Nadal and Djokovic knew how to maintain a consistent 8 or 9 out of 10 level of play. That sounds right, with Murray a half notch behind.
The five-to-six-year age gap doesn’t keep getting bigger, but I think there’s a big difference between being a 33-year-old playing 27- or 28-year-olds and a 29-year-old playing 23- or 24-year-old opponents.
2018 view: I discussed the physical issues above, so let’s take a look at the rivalries with the other Big 4 players. At the time of my conversation with Courtney, Federer had beaten Murray in Melbourne then lost decisively to Nadal in the semifinals. Over the next two years Federer would compile a 4-0 record against Murray, dropping no sets. He played Nadal once, at his home tournament in Basel in 2015, winning a three set final. And he played Novak Djokovic a staggering 14 times (not counting the London WTF walkover), winning 6 matches and losing 8 – but importantly, Djokovic won all 5 of the biggest matches, 3 Grand Slam Finals (Wimbledon 2014 and 2015, US Open 2015), a Grand Slam semi final (Australian Open 2016) and the London World Tour Finals in 2015.
Strikingly, Federer hasn’t played either Murray or Djokovic since he hurt his knee and had surgery two years ago. He did, of course, face Nadal on a memorable night in Melbourne in January 2017, one of 4 victories to no defeats that year – none of them on clay, as Federer himself has wryly observed.
How does my prediction look with 4 years hindsight? 33% correct, I’d say. Federer has clearly been an underdog against a healthy Djokovic, but is 9-0 against the other two.
SI.com: Based on what you saw in Australia, what are your expectations this year? Is he back?
Burton: Federer played well against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Murray, but Nadal was another story (as usual!). If all the top ATP players stay healthy, I don’t expect Federer to be one of the top two players. So in that sense, I don’t expect Federer to come “back” as he did in 2011-2012 (and you’ll remember I did call that shot early in 2012).
I do expect to see Federer play at the ATP World Tour Finals in November again: Being in the 3-8 range in 2014 is much more likely than one of the top two seeds, provided he stays fit. And there’s another tantalizing prospect: The Swiss have a decent Davis Cup draw, and Stan The Man Wawrinka is Australian Open champion and Swiss top dog.
Roger and Mirka have another child on the way. Federer’s going through his old dorky photos on Twitter. Federer genuinely still seems to have a zest for tennis, and the perspective to know that it’s just a part of life.
2018 view: I was wrong about the seedings at the 2014 London ATP WTFs; Federer did go in as the number 2 seed, but this was substantially due to Nadal ending his season early after dealing with wrist problems and appendix issues. And as mentioned above, my Davis Cup prediction turned out to be accurate.
The comparatively successful 2014 led most observers (including me) to believe that Federer certainly could win one more Grand Slam title to add to his then-total of 17. Three times in succession, he crashed into the rock of peak Novak.
Then came 2017, and early 2018. This Federer fan did not, repeat not see the results – 9 titles (3 Majors), 1 final – coming. But I did expect the zest for tennis, on display at the inaugural 2017 Laver Cup and 2018 Hopman Cup, to continue.
Overall, going to mark this as 33% correct as well. To sum up, 75%, 33% and 33% – I probably should keep my day job.
When I talked to Courtney in 2014, I was very influenced by a superb 2011 article in the New York Times Magazine by Michael Sokolove, “For Derek Jeter On His 37th Birthday”
“[T]he careers of elite athletes, enviable as they may be, are foreshortened versions of a human lifespan. Physical decline — in specific ways that affect what they do and who they are — begins for them before it does for normal people. The athletes themselves rarely see the beginnings of this process, or if they do, either do not acknowledge it or try to fight it off like just another inside fastball. They alter their training routines. Eat more chicken and fish, less red meat. They try to get “smarter” at their sport.
A great many of us, their fans, live in our own version of denial — even in this age of super-slow-motion replay and ever more granular statistical data. We want to think our favorite players have good years left, great accomplishments ahead of them, just as we would hope the same for ourselves.”
Four years on, this Federer fan has been delighted, albeit surprised, at the amount of great accomplishments – with possibly more to come. Perhaps the most important lesson for me has been that evidence based realism – my attempt not to fall into the trap of my own version of denial – can be trumped by genius and a zest for the game. And for those ATP or WTA tennis fans waiting for their own favorite great player to return to competition in full health, good things can come to those prepared to wait.