published Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Wiedmer: Federer’s best tennis looks to be behind him

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    Switzerland's Roger Federer leaves the court after being defeated by France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in their match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, Wednesday, June 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

I hope Roger Federer wins another major or two before he retires. I hope so, but I'll no longer expect it after Wednesday's stunning loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. And neither should you.

Federer's lengthy, lordly run atop professional tennis unofficially ended on a windy Monday night in New York City in September of 2009, when he couldn't hold a 2-1 lead in sets against Juan Martin del Potro in the U.S. Open final.

Fed had won the only French Open title of his record 16 Grand Slam crowns earlier that summer, grabbed his sixth Wimbledon crown a month later and seemed to have reclaimed his stranglehold on men's tennis, even if rival Rafael Nadal hadn't been 100 percent healthy for much of the year.

But despite later claiming the 2010 Australian Open against Andy Murray, Fed has proved vulnerable to tall, heavy-hitting opponents ever since that rain-delayed final in the Big Apple against del Potro. Wednesday was more of the same, only worse.

No longer does Federer's low, slicing backhand prove unmanageable to big guys with bigger guns. No longer do his ground strokes routinely clip the lines, instead tending to land at least 18 inches inside the sidelines, where his opponents can not only reach them, but punish them.

His serve may still be the most unreadable in the game, but it seems to be his only vastly superior weapon at the moment.

And then there's Federer's psyche, which has always leaned on the fragile side — just recall his tearful meltdown following his 2009 Aussie Open final loss to Nadal.

A single overturned line call seemed to be his undoing in the U.S. Open loss to del Potro. A drop shot that fell just wide and denied him the first set in this year's French Open final sent Fed into such a funk he dropped the next five games and the set to Nadal. He eventually lost that match in four.

Even his fourth round win against Mikhail Youzhny on Monday came with a first-set tiebreaker collapse after a net chord winner by Youzhny cut Fed's tiebreaker lead to 4-2. He dropped five of the next six points before rallying to win the next three sets.

Still, never before had he blown a two-set lead in a major. And this atop Wimbledon's green grass, reportedly his favorite surface.

Everybody ages, of course. Federer will turn 30 in August. He's now married with twin daughters, so his drive and focus — he's still reached a preposterous 29 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals — would understandably be compromised by family.

But it's something television analyst Mary Carillo said as Federer failed to reach a final in last summer's final three majors that cuts to many of his problems.

“Against today's big hitters,” she said, “Roger sometimes looks almost frail out there.”

Raquet technology did much to derail John McEnroe's magical game 20 years ago. Federer — who's easily the most elegant player since Rod Laver and the most creative since McEnroe — is suffering from a similar issue.

The game is much more power and precision from the baseline and while Federer may still have the most lethal forehand in the game when he's on, he's not on as much as he used to be and his apparent inability to crush backhand winners with the ease of Djokovic or Nadal has allowed too many opponents to avoid that forehand.

Beyond that, his 8-17 lifetime record against Nadal now seriously threatens to derail his longtime nickname of GOAT (greatest of all time) among many tennis experts. Though Federer still leads Nadal in total majors 16-10, Rafa looks far more likely to add to that total than Roger.

On January 27th of this year, having just fallen to Djokovic in the Australian Open semis, Federer dismissed the notion that his time at the top had passed, despite his ranking falling to No. 3.

“Let's talk in six months again,” he said.

Five months later, Tsonga's talk after Wednesday's win may sum up Federer's future best.

“I was just perfect today,” he said.

And Tsonga was brilliant. Acting like Muhammad Ali, whom he so resembles physically, it was easy to say the first two sets were merely his rope-a-dope, wearing Fed out, lulling him to sleep. Then the heavy ammo arrived and you could almost hear the announcers screaming, “Down goes Federer, down goes Federer.”

But here's the other thing: Tennis players still capable of winning majors never let an opponent play perfect after they’ve won the opening two sets.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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