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What was it that caused Roger Federer to exit this year's Wimbledon in such feckless fashion?
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Can't write off Federer just yet
Faced with the challenge of resurrecting a little bit of the invincibility that he wore so regally, Federer's true test lies in the month ahead.
Let me state this at the very beginning: I'm no Federer fan. While I don't doubt his prowess or his finesse, there's something about Roger Federer that leaves me cold. He's too perfect, he has the perfect game and the perfect family, and that, in my books, makes him boring. Strange as it may sound, there's very little about the Swiss that makes him look human. Indeed, for his legion of fans, he's nothing less than a deity. The most fervent fans have come to believe their man can do no wrong. They ignore the self-complimentary quotes, the man-bag and the embellished jackets, the snappish "Shut up" to the French Open crowd last year and even the tears.
The man, who had played 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals - from 2004 till now - and spent 302 weeks as the number one player in the world, lost in the second-round at Wimbledon and made Sergiy Stakhovsky of Ukraine a famous man. Stakhovsky, to his credit, used old-school serve-and-volley tactics to win 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) and left Federer a man anyone could beat. "Magic" is what Stakhovsky said he needed to beat the multiple Grand Slam champion but for Federer fans this is a sign of the end. Suddenly the R-word was being bandied about as Federer's next step.
Which perhaps explains why I'm rooting for Federer to pull himself out of this 'slump' that he finds himself in. For the first time in his life, Federer, and his fans, felt what it means to be mortal. His achievements over the years - 17 Grand Slams, most titles at Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open - and the fact that he's only one of three men in the Open era to win a career Grand Slam on three different surfaces are special, just as his rivalry with Rafael Nadal. Since he won his first ever Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer has probably never felt the need for introspection. Yes, he has lost to Nadal 10 times in the last nine years - his win-loss record is 905-205 - but losing to Nadal was never an embarrassment for the Swiss. The crying afterwards may be.
Federer's admirers point to his recent spate of losses and reason that by ignoring the obvious signs, the champion is only diminishing his legacy. Yes, Federer lost in the quarterfinals to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros and to Tomas Berdych in the quarters of the US Open;yes, his only finals of 2013 have been in the Rome Masters (clay) and Halle (grass). However, he did win three Masters 1000 tourneys last year. He beat Novak Djokovic with surprising ease at Wimbledon last year.
It is not just Nadal and Djokovic who can get the better of him these days. Juan Martin Del Potro, Berdych, Robin Soderling and Tsonga have all done it in recent Slams. This second-round loss - his worst at any event since losing to world No. 154 Mario Ancic at Wimbledon in 2002 - is the first time he finds himself not in a position of pre-eminence. From once being the one and only, he is just one of the boys. And that's what makes Federer an even more interesting player to watch.
For all his elegance and flair and mastery of the game, Federer's toughness, focus and competitiveness are legendary. He has never been afflicted by ailments, physical or emotional torment like other players. While others huffed and puffed and drained themselves of all energy, he looked good enough for a photoshoot. For all his god-given talent, his mental fortitude is what has won him matches as much as his forehand and nimble feet.
Faced with the challenge of resurrecting a little bit of the invincibility that he wore so regally, Federer's true test lies in the month ahead. Beneath the elegant exterior and unflappable hair bubbles a boiling determination to win. So, instead of taking a one-month long break after Wimbledon, the former World No. 1 will be back in action in a week's time at Hamburg, an event he hasn't played since 2007. There's nothing wrong with Federer choosing to play some more. He has a truckload of points to defend and a few wins definitely won't hurt, either his ranking or his morale.
He only needs to look at his female counterpart, Serena Williams, to see how epic 'comebacks' can be. Written off multiple times, the 31-year-old Serena has battled injuries, depression, weight problems, contention of lost desire and the feeble charge of the youth brigade to stamp her dominance on women's tennis. As Sam Snead, who won a record 82 PGA events said, "The mark of a great player is in his ability to come back. The great champions have all come back from defeat. "
To say that Federer can't win another Grand Slam is laughable. To write off the man just because he's 31 is doing him an injustice. To expect only perfection at all times is unjust. Federer is, after all, only human. And that perhaps is the most bitter pill for his fans to swallow.
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