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FEDERER AND THE POWER OF ALMOST

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

The story of Roger Federer is, on many levels, a linear and uncomplicated one. From a more distant or detached perspective, it certainly offers the surface appearance of a relatively simple career trajectory.

Federer struggled in his youth, found a taste of his talent against Pete Sampras in 2001, and needed more time to build his game into something which would be there every day. Then — after breaking through at Wimbledon in 2003 — he fully discovered a winning formula, never to lose it for anything beyond a month unless injuries were involved.

Federer needed time to grow up. Once the pieces began to fall into place, they remained in place for 14 years. Federer has remained a fundamentally steady and reliable championship player for a long time. When he lost, it was because Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic became better and evolved, not because he regressed or watched his skills erode. 

It all sounds so simple, and to a certain extent, it is. However, to get a fuller appreciation for Federer or any great athlete, the larger and broader themes cannot be allowed to harden into the easy or reflexive knee-jerk generalizations which fail to allow for the presence of nuance, an appreciation of players such as Juan Martin del Potro, or an understanding of the occasions when Federer surprisingly loses, as was the case in Sunday’s Indian Wells final. 

The surprise, to be specific, was not the fact that Federer lost — del Potro had a very good chance to win going into this contest. What was surprising to at least some degree is the fact that Federer lost the match after having three match points on his serve. 

No, the moment was not entirely new. Federer has lost matches, even a championship match, after having had match points before. Yet, Federer’s 17-0 record in 2018 (now 17-1) and five match losses since the start of 2017 (now six), occurring against the backdrop of a depleted ATP field without his foremost adversaries, created the powerfully familiar feeling that Federer was going to serve out that match at 5-4, 40-15. One could have remained open to the possibility that Delpo would fight back, but that is not the same thing as distrusting Federer’s ability to close out the match. If there is one thing Federer has done since the start of 2017, it is that he has re-earned the trust of others to win a match of significance (on a non-clay surface) in a tight situation. Sunday, it simply didn’t happen. 

Federer couldn’t hit well-placed first serve on any of his three match points. Del Potro played bravely to apply pressure on his opponent. Federer wasn’t able to hit a good shot. Federer didn’t miss an easy winner; he did get a little tight, and Delpo, to his great credit, pounced. It is like a champion golfer missing a 15-foot putt to win a tournament by one stroke on the final hole. The putt might not have been a gimmie, but it is a putt that player has made so many times before. When that heralded player fails to do something he has done hundreds of times in the past, it’s not a choke or even a flinch (not unless the specific details are more damning). It is merely a case of human imperfection and limitation. If hitting a first serve on match point or making a 15-footer to win The Masters on the 18th hole were automatic realities, players would never miss and great sports achievements would not own either drama or heft.

This is why Federer’s loss — and many others like it — is, in a sense, comforting.

No, it’s not comforting to his fans, but it is comforting in the sense that Federer is not an automatic winner, someone who has always finished tournaments in which he was the favorite and/or held the upper hand in a match. 

For all the times non-Federer-loving tennis fans have groaned in a spirit of resignation when Roger was just about to win a tournament, there have been times when that seemingly preordained ending never quite occurred. Federer winning is one of the most familiar ATP moments the viewing public has seen over the past 15 years. For his fans, that familiar moment never gets old. For his detractors, those moments were occasions for groaning and lamentation. The point of the familiarity, though, is to underscore the point that Federer is almost always there in the final of an important tournament. 

He did not win title No. 98 on Sunday, but he did reach final No. 147, which moved him past Ivan Lendl (146) for second place on the all-time list behind Jimmy Connors (164). Federer might have 97 titles, but he has lost 50 other finals. Federer has reached 195 semifinals, with Nadal at 146. Federer has lost in 48 semifinal matches. A lot of these numbers are a product of longevity, to be sure. Yet, when one recalls Pete Sampras’s career and remembers how poorly he did at the French Open or how up-and-down he was in the latter years of his career, it is not surprising to realize that Sampras’s name doesn’t appear on the top-10 lists of runner-up or semifinal finishes. Federer — and to a lesser degree, Nadal and Djokovic — planted a stake in the ground by establishing relentless week-to-week consistency. Nadal and Djokovic have many years left to enhance their places in the history books. Federer, though, is the current flagbearer not just for winning, but for finishing second or in the top four (semifinals) when he does lose. He is not completely immune to the early-round loss, and obviously, he picked up a ton of those early losses in the first several years of his career. Yet, since the start of 2004, how many times has Federer failed to make the final four of a tournament? All in all, not that many relative to the number of matches he has played. 

This is part of the larger Federer experience — namely, that he reaches high and achieves even when he loses.

Jack Nicklaus won 18 golf majors, but what has to be mentioned alongside that record-setting number of wins are the surrounding statistics: 19 runner-up finishes, 46 top threes, 56 top fives, 73 top 10s. Nicklaus finished in the top five in seven straight golf majors. The track record does point to remarkably enduring consistency, but within that consistency lies the fact that Nicklaus more often finished second (19) than he finished first (18). If he finished in the top three, the times when he didn’t lift a trophy (28) dwarfed the times when he made a victory speech (18).

Nicklaus had more championship moments than any of his peers, predecessors, or successors… but the fairy-tale ending often eluded him, as shown in the “Duel In The Sun” with Tom Watson in Turnberry at the 1977 British Open.

It is so much the same with Federer, especially after what we saw on Sunday. Federer wins in these situations more than anyone else, and yet, he has lost in these situations more than a few times. More than a dozen times, Federer has lost a match after having match point. He has lost seven tournament-deciding tiebreakers, i.e., final-set tiebreakers in championship matches of tournaments. 

No, Federer didn’t deserve to win any of the matches he lost. Tennis players have to win the last point, and Federer has not won the last point on several occasions — to that extent, coming close doesn’t matter at all. Yet, viewed through a different lens, coming close certainly does matter. It means that Federer is almost always in a very familiar place on a Friday (major tournament), Saturday (Masters/500) or Sunday (both) with a chance to lift a trophy.

“If I can keep giving myself chances” is the Federer anthem. Sometimes it means winning Wimbledon or the Australian Open against a depleted field and taking full advantage of the opportunity. Other times it doesn’t lead to glory… but it leads to a tournament final and reinforces the reality that Federer’s reliability, five months short of his 37th birthday, is still as much of an everyday part of tennis as it has been since 2004.

The winning, then, while very familiar, isn’t as familiar as something else: Federer’s presence late in a tournament. That translates to trophies, but it will also translate into the kind of scene witnessed on Sunday against a fully deserving Delpo. Appreciating these almost moments is as essential to understanding Federer as admiring the championships.

Almost is a regret-soaked word for so many athletes and sports teams. For Roger Federer — especially after the 2018 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells — that word doesn’t carry the sting it normally possesses.

 

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Roundtable — What Shanghai Means For Borna Coric

Tennis Accent Staff

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QUESTION: How did Shanghai change your perceptions of Borna Coric, if at all?

ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad

Borna Coric had a big win over a Swiss star this past week. It wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Stan Wawrinka has showed hints of regaining his form since the U.S. hard court swing. He looked good in Cincinnati with wins over Diego Schwartzman and Kei Nishikori before going out in the quarterfinals. Stan also made the semifinals in St. Petersburg. But Coric, ranked 19 coming into Shanghai, was steady on his serve in set 3, and was able to pocket 1 of 3 break chances. So…

Oh, wait a second. He had a win over another Swiss star, too.

Coric’s win over Roger Federer wasn’t entirely unexpected either. Coric had been a tough out for Federer in their Indian Wells semifinal in March, winning the first set and being a break up in both the second and third sets. He had won a famous victory in the Halle final over Federer. I had the sense, then, that Federer had run out of gas in the third set (he had played nine matches on grass in two weeks), but Coric was well worth the win.

After the final I tweeted:

“Nothing but positive things to say about Borna Coric today – he was mentally really strong, had a solid game plan, served well and attacked the net intelligently. And took his chance in the first set TB, which was a huge moment in the match.”

On Saturday, Coric was even better than he had been in June: He was dominant on serve, conceding no break points. He won the short rallies, the mid-length rallies and the longer rallies. You can argue he won the net points as well, going 100 percent when he came to net, which was once (Federer was 11 of 15).

Coric’s reward was his first M1000 final against Novak Djokovic, who (as we discussed Sunday at Tennis With An Accent) is looking ominously close to his dominant best. Coric wasn’t blown out (as his near contemporary, Sascha Zverev, had been in the semifinal), but he won fewer than three points for every four won by Djokovic. It was a competitive match, but never really close.

Coric announced himself on the ATP World Tour with a win over Rafael Nadal at Basel in 2014, when he was not yet 18 years old. But in the early part of his career he looked to me like a pure grinder, winning matches more with his legs than his racquet. Four years on, he’s still winning more matches with power and consistency than finesse — a work in progress, not yet the full meal deal.

I can’t honestly say that Borna Coric shifted my perceptions of him significantly this week. I think he’ll be a good player, but I’m far from convinced he’ll be a great one.

MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk

I have been following Coric since his younger years and am not surprised by the development in his game, nor by his success. In fact, I would argue that his injury-prone mid-2016 to mid-2017 period held him back tremendously, putting him behind peers such as Alexander Zverev, although Borna has been mentally ahead of them for many years (see, for example, Borna’s win over Sascha in Cincinnati 2015, in which mental toughness and maturity made the difference at the end).

Cool-headedness under pressure and a high IQ have always been a part of his pedigree. Having been forced to press the reset button late 2016 due to knee surgery and then suffering another setback due to other rehabilitation issues after a short comeback in early 2017, Coric could finally begin to focus on ameliorating his overall skills after that.

By now, he has had ample time to upgrade his stroke production and set the parameters for a complete all-around game with no visible weaknesses. His forehand and serve appear to be the biggest improvements, but I would add to that, the forward-backward first-step quickness which allows him to pounce on a shorter ball and move forward when he recognizes an opportunity.

This added first-step dimension, for example, allows his already sound net skills to come to the foreground. I am not saying that he is “faster” or that “he moves better,” but rather, that he is applying his existing great footwork to the enhancements in his game he has made over the last 12 months. This week was comprehensively the best performance of his career in my opinion, including the final.

The next (and the last) puzzle to solve for Coric, before he can be counted as one of the major forces in men’s tennis, is consistency in big tournaments in terms of results. This is where Zverev, to mention one of his equals again, is a step ahead of him. 2018 has not been “that” year for Coric… not yet.

MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek

Yes, Borna Coric should have beaten Roger Federer in Indian Wells, but he got tight and let that match slip away at the end. Therefore, when Coric met Federer in the Halle final, Coric had something to prove. He played like it, besting Federer in three sets and taking advantage of an ever-so-slight lapse by the Swiss in a first-set tiebreaker.

Over the course of his career, Federer has been very good (against players other than Rafael Nadal) at avenging losses in meaningful moments. The 2010 U.S. Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic was one of the most painful defeats of his career. Then came 2011 Roland Garros, one of the more satisfying wins of Federer’s tennis life. The 2011 U.S. Open semifinal might have been even more painful than 2010. No problem – Federer struck back against Djokovic in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinals.

The beat goes on, and the point is simple: Federer is good about correcting the losses which carry an extra sting – or if not sting, certainly an extra cost such as a Halle title.

Coric had more to prove in Halle after the Indian Wells “agony in the desert.” In Shanghai, this figured to be Federer’s moment of revenge, especially after a high-level performance against Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals seemed to get him back into a rhythm.

Nope.

Coric didn’t allow Federer to get comfortable at any point in a routine straight-set match. Coric’s serve – winning the amount of free points Nishikori struggles to win – will lend ballast to his career as long as it remains potent. Coric’s forehand can be very weak at times, but in Shanghai, it looked a lot more solid.

Do I think Coric will have a huge 2019? No… but I do think he will become more consistent.

Coric is like a WTA top-10 player – and this is not a criticism: His results veer all over the place, but he is good for a few very big runs at significant tournaments each season. That’s good – just in a volatile way. I think Coric won’t lose in the round of 64 or 32 at tournaments nearly as often next year. He will make more rounds of 16 and quarterfinals. That’s what this Shanghai tournament has done to change my perceptions of Coric.

Whether he can push beyond the quarters or 16s of big events is something I don’t yet feel confident enough to answer. Nevertheless, Coric is definitely moving in the right direction. Shanghai – specifically the “No, you’re not going to avenge your loss against me!” response to Federer – moderately but genuinely increased my expectations for what he can, and will, achieve.

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Djokovic Wins Shanghai and Carries Excellence Everywhere He Goes

Tennis Accent Staff

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Question: What is the big story coming out of Shanghai?

MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk

Novak Djokovic is getting it done, with a crushing level of domination since his Wimbledon title. The Shanghai title adds to his rise to the top — for me, the story of the year in men’s tennis — in that it is less what he is doing than how he is getting it done: on a variety of surfaces, in all aspects of the game.

He is winning matches with a considerable gap in the level of tennis between him and his opponents. Shanghai ATP 1000 is the tournament that moves the goalposts in 2018’s biggest story in men’s tennis: It moves them from Novak’s “comeback and rise to the top” to Novak’s “command at the top.” The former took place at Wimbledon. The latter is resonating since then, and it seems to be here to stay for a while. It also begs the question: How long will it continue? The last time Novak was in command of men’s tennis, it lasted a couple of years. Can it last that long this time around, too? After the Shanghai title, these are substantial questions that need to be put on the table.

For Novak to be as dominant as he was at his peak — I mean results-wise only, because game-wise, he is already there (another Shanghai confirmation) — he would need to collect titles on all court-speed variations over an extended period of time. Winning Shanghai brings him ever closer to that. He is not completely there (he may get there, depending on his results next Spring on clay), but this title represents a giant step in that direction.

ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad

Two big stories came out of Shanghai – a presence, and an absence.

The presence was the form of the tournament winner, Novak Djokovic. Djokovic has always enjoyed the Asian swing: Nick Lester, the Tennis TV commentator, tweeted after Novak’s quarterfinal win over Kevin Anderson:

Novak Djokovic’s @ATPWorldTour record on Asian soil since the start of 2009 now sits at 56-4.

Make that 58-4. According to Greg Sharko, the ATP stats guru, Shanghai 2018 was Djokovic’s first tour title without getting broken in the tournament. Djokovic won 85 percent of his first-serve points and 60 percent of his second-serve points.

If you couple that with Novak’s trademark return excellence, you have a very formidable tennis player. I took a look at Djokovic’s return stats for the tournament. Only Coric, who had put on a serving clinic against Federer in the semifinal, was able to win more than 50 percent of his second-serve points – a bare majority of 9 from 16. Over five matches Djokovic’s second-return points won percentage was 57, just below his second-serve points won percentage.

Craig O’Shannessy is a tennis analyst and strategist who tweets as @BrainGameTennis and consults with Djokovic. Craig spotted (in a match against Tsonga) that Djokovic had effectively played with three serves to the Frenchman’s one: Djokovic’s second-serve returns were as effective as his own second serves. This is what Novak did for the whole tournament in Shanghai, effectively played with three serves to one.

Novak scrapped his way to the title in the last Masters 1000 in Cincinnati, and a discerning observer (the tournament’s No. 1 seed) suggested that he still had room to improve before the end of the season. A U.S. Open and another Masters 1000 have followed; if Djokovic hasn’t reached his best level yet, the rest of the field ought to be fairly nervous for 2019.

The rest of the field? I hate to say it, but with the honorable exception of the players Djokovic beat on his way to the trophy, you have to mark it down as an absence. Two of the Big 4 were physically absent, with Rafael Nadal recuperating from a knee strain and Andy Murray having shut down his season. The fourth member of the group, Roger Federer, fought his way into the semifinals and looked to have run out of mental and physical energy against Coric.

Del Potro and Cilic, newly 30, had tournaments to forget, with Cilic falling in the first round to Nico Jarry and del Potro laboring with illness early in the week before retiring after a heavy fall caused a knee injury in his R-16 match with Coric. Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, like Cilic, couldn’t win their first match.

Del Potro has qualified for the ATP Finals in London. Barring injury or an implausible Jack Sock- like run in the last tournaments of the year, Cilic and Thiem will join him. But the second big story from Shanghai is the absence of any serious consistent competitor to the Big 3 for major titles.

As Federer and Nadal did before him, Novak Djokovic has returned from injury as an apparently unstoppable force. He will likely go into Melbourne in 2019 as the clear Australian Open favorite. It’s a long way off, but Roland Garros 2019 – and a possible clash between Djokovic playing for a second Novak Slam and Nadal for an almost unthinkable 12th French Open title – is a distinct prospect.

MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek

The big story could not be anything — or anyone — else: Novak Djokovic put his stamp of mastery and dominance on men’s tennis. At the U.S. Open, the oppressive weather conditions prevented him from playing at his best through the first five rounds, which he still managed to navigate with typical resourcefulness and drive. Once the weather became tolerable over the final weekend of that tournament, he played the lockdown lights-out tennis against Kei Nishikori and Juan Martin del Potro which defined him at his peak periods this decade.

Wimbledon was an extraordinary tournament and an equally extraordinary achievement for Djokovic because he wasn’t quite the transcendent, overwhelming force he had been in 2015 and the first half of 2016… yet still found a way to lift the trophy and very quickly complete his revival. Djokovic was outplayed by Rafael Nadal for most of that epic semifinal — a match which will likely be remembered as one of the most important in tennis history — but served remarkably well in crunch-time moments to prevail, 10-8 in the fifth set. That was a spectacular response to pressure, making Wimbledon once again the site of Djokovic’s proudest accomplishments.

At the U.S. Open, however, Djokovic escaped the withering heat and — in his last two matches in New York — kicked two very good players to the curb in comprehensive beatdowns.

We who cover tennis thought that this might be the launching pad for another Pax Djokovic.

That is EXACTLY what we received in Shanghai — only this wasn’t just a two-match finishing kick in the semis and final. This is how the whole week unfolded.

Djokovic is sitting in the clouds, high above Rafa and (even more especially) Federer. The distance between him and Zverev is enormous.

This is Novak’s world, and we are just living in it.

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Saturday in Shanghai Confirms the Djokovic Restoration

Matt Zemek

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It is one thing to desire revenge. It is another thing to deliver it, especially in a dominant fashion.

Novak Djokovic got everything he wanted out of his Saturday in Shanghai.

You KNEW Djokovic wanted to get on a court with Sascha Zverev after the 2017 Rome final in which the young German won his first Masters 1000 championship in a clean and methodical manner. Zverev calmly dissected Djokovic’s game that day in Italy, flashing on a big stage the talent which has since catapulted the (now-) 21-year-old to a large collection of ATP titles, including two more Masters trophies. Zverev is just beginning what has all the makings of a supremely prosperous career. What he did against Djokovic could reasonably be referred to as “The Moment,” a point in time I identify as decisive in a player’s career.

As I have written on previous occasions, “The Moment” — if a player does something significant enough to achieve it — marks a player for greatness. Roger Federer had “The Moment” against Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. Zverev announced himself in Rome one and a half years ago.

Yet, as well as Zverev played that day, the benefit of hindsight allows us to appreciate how physically limited Djokovic was. The Serbian superstar, we can acknowledge, was laboring through pain, which hampered him in an immediate sense, but also interfered with the mind-body dualism athletes need to maintain clarity and fluidity in everything they do. Zverev deserved all the credit for his performance, but Djokovic was not in a position to be at his best.

Saturday in Shanghai, Djokovic — fit, prepared, and at the top of his game — gained his chance to show Zverev what he was capable of.

The result was predictable, but said predictability should not — and cannot — take away from the majesty of a brutal beatdown.

This is Djokovic in full flight. This is the player who put the rest of the ATP Tour at his feet in 2015 and the first half of 2016. This was not about Zverev’s inadequacies (though they exist and need to be reduced by Ivan Lendl in 2019). This was about Djokovic being a fully restored player in every sense and delivering a butt-kicking which reminded Sascha how far he has to climb to reach the Djokovic standard.

In one hour, this evisceration ran its course.

Djokovic will technically be World No. 2 on Monday — surpassing Federer — but everyone can see that Novak is the world’s best tennis player by a considerable distance at the moment. If he chooses to play Bercy, he will be the favorite there. He will be the favorite to win the ATP Finals in London. He will be the favorite (assuming there are no injuries in the intervening months) at the Australian Open in January.

In his first great season — 2011 — Djokovic dominated the tour from January through the U.S. Open, but that immense workload took a toll on his body, and he ran out of gas in autumn of that year. In 2015, he carried his dominance through the ATP Finals, and in 2018, after a first half of the season spent regrouping and rediscovering his rhythmic balance, Djokovic is comparatively fresh with less tread on the tires. He is in position to roar some more — just as he has done against Kevin Anderson in the Shanghai quarterfinals and Zverev in the semis. It is hard to see him losing to Coric — who upset Federer in Saturday’s other semifinal — on Sunday.

A brief word about Federer: One can plainly see that the Swiss, despite his high-quality win over Kei Nishikori in the Shanghai quarters, is struggling to find a balance between rest and match play. It’s almost** as though being 37 years old requires tough choices and involves a struggle to discern the limits of mind and body!

** = NOT ALMOST!

The new world rankings on Monday reflect the flow of the 2018 ATP season: Federer has been the third-best player on tour. That is still phenomenal for a player his age, but Nadal is certainly second, and Djokovic is just as certainly Numero Uno.

The Djokovic Restoration Tour of 2018 continues unabated. That is what Saturday in Shanghai most authoritatively confirmed.

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