There was a time when watching Roger Federer shank the ball gave me a little thrill of pleasure. Not jealousy’s pleasure in pain — just the opposite. When Federer framed the ball, it seemed like an interesting quirk, the kind of mistake that affirmed just how gobsmackingly great he was. His swing produced so much speed, his racket had such a small sweet spot, his targets were so precise, and the array of angles he exploited was so vast that the tiniest mistiming could produce catastrophic results. You take something for granted until you’re reminded just how fragile it is, how rare it should be. It was basically impossible, what Federer did almost all the time: making perfectly clean contact with a spinning ball approaching at different trajectories and at crazy speeds, and then sending his shot — chosen from the biggest range of options the sport had ever known — to a deliberate spot, a target maybe a few square inches, and hitting that mark more often than not. So when he mishit the ball, he sometimes missed big. He’d elevate in his split step a nanosecond too long, or his footwork would float him just a few millimeters too close to the ball, or a lump of clay would imperceptibly skew the angle of the ball’s bounce, or a butterfly in Tokyo flapped its wings and produced a slight atmospheric disturbance in Queens, and the ball would thwack off his frame and sail out. It was delightful. That’s how hard it is to do what normally looks so easy, I’d think. That’s how great he is.
A few years ago, when people started to talk about Federer in funereal terms, they usually talked about how often he shanked the ball. There wasn’t much else to talk about at that point, of course, besides the plain fact of his age; he was still at least the third-best player in the world, and in some conditions and on some days the very best, and he still moved around the court with that easy grace and awesome command, the kind of preternatural authority that makes me half-believe in the divine right of kings. But it was true, Federer was shanking the ball more often, on the forehand as well as the backhand. The mishits started to seem more worrisome than charming. Then they became downright embarrassing. Last year, when he really did begin to struggle, and not only by Federerian standards, the framed balls were what I’d remember when he lost a match, and what I’d try to forget.
When his losses and near-losses were raked over, the mishits were obsessed over. There had to be an explanation. Federer was having trouble reading shots coming off his opponent’s rackets, you would hear. Or his famously fluid footwork had become less efficient and quick. Or a back injury was affecting the rotation of his torso. Or he was standing up on his shots. Or he’d lost his confidence and his cool, and so his consistency. Or his racket was too small. He used a 90-square-inch frame with a tiny, punishing sweet spot, while everyone else had a more merciful and powerful oversize frame. It was like taking a flintlock pistol to a duel against a guy with an assault rifle! It was like using a fax machine to send an email! Or something. Last summer, Federer did switch to a 98-square-inch model, a prototype from Wilson. The shanks — and the losses to obscure players — didn’t stop, and the racket was shelved for the rest of the year, until he could work with it in the offseason.
When the Australian Open begins on Monday (Sunday night in the U.S.), Federer will be using a 98-inch model tweaked with a blacked-out frame, with which he spent the offseason practicing. He says that horrible year — in which he made only one Grand Slam semifinal, ended his stunning streak of 36 quarterfinal appearances (nine years’ worth!), and lost to players with names like Sergiy Stakhovsky and Daniel Brands — is behind him. He’s confident. He’s moving well. His childhood hero, Stefan Edberg, will be in his box in Melbourne as a coach, or at least as an inspiration. Federer says he’s feeling good. He says he likes his new racket now.
Federer used the bigger Wilson at his first tournament of the year, in Brisbane. He made the final there, where he faced Lleyton Hewitt. During the first set, he framed ball after ball after ball. It was brace-yourself awful, hide-your-eyes awful. The mishits were bad enough; at one point, Federer didn’t even make contact with his frame. He actually whiffed. Serving at 1-0, 40-0, Hewitt spun a second serve slowly and safely into the ad court. Federer leaped at the ball with his typical balletic grace, sweeping that pretty one-handed backhand through the air … and right past the ball. Federer didn’t even touch it. It wasn’t an ace. It was a punch in the gut.
The first set lasted all of 27 minutes. Federer hit 22 unforced errors in seven games. He recovered to take the second set, but then lost the match, 1-6, 6-4, 3-6.
Forget the mishits, if you can. They distract from what’s really worrisome — and what’s so interesting to me about Federer’s game right now. What’s happening to Federer is not just the normal effects of aging. These days, sometimes — not always, not even often, but sometimes — he plays like an idiot. It’s almost as if one of the greatest tennis players of all time has to figure out how to play a tennis match.
Federer is now ranked no. 6 in the world. That number says very little. On any given day, he is probably not the sixth-best player in the world. For a set or two, he can look like one of the three or four best. And for a set or two, he looks like a guy who doesn’t belong on the Challenger circuit.
In the past six months, Federer has beaten Juan Martin del Potro and taken sets from Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But he’s also had some shocking results. He’s not only losing now to guys who are younger and stronger. Hewitt, after all, is 32, the same age as Federer — in fact, a few months older than Federer. Tommy Robredo, who beat Federer at the U.S. Open in September, is 31. The problem isn’t just that Federer has more days now where he wakes up with a stiff back or in need of an extra cup of coffee. The problem isn’t just that his movement is a microsecond slower, or that he doesn’t quite have the flexibility he once did, or that he doesn’t anticipate as well as he did when he was dominant. It’s not just his body. It’s his head. The shanks are what you notice; that whiff is what you remember. But the shanks aren’t why he lost that first set to Hewitt — nor why, after settling down, playing decently, and winning the second set, he went on to lose the match. He has lost because he bunted his returns and tried to rip his groundstrokes, and it was hard to see any purpose, any plan. The standard advice, almost always, for almost anyone, is to be aggressive, but the way he tried to be aggressive was bizarre. He took big risks at strange moments, unloading on forehands that should have been defensive shots. He mistook pace for boldness, ran through standard forehands, and seemed to have no clue what he wanted to do with the ball next. He lined up a rally ball and hit it two feet long and five feet wide. He hesitated before charging the net and then hit approach shots that turned him into a sitting duck. I’m being unfair — sort of. In the second set he found his range. But it wasn’t enough. And when the pressure was on most, when he had break points on Hewitt’s serve, his shots once again broke down.
It would be easy to call this a crisis of confidence. But I don’t think his problem is as simple as self-doubt. Roger Federer knows how good he is — even now. Nor do I think it’s really a question of bad (or no!) strategy — though it can seem that way. Skill, a friend once told me, is never having to make a rational choice. My guess is that more and more often, with every tool at his disposal, with every angle possible, with every shot he’s perfected and invented, with so many possibilities in front of him, Federer is trying to decide the right thing to do.
And it’s hard, because his life is changing. He knows it; everyone knows it. He and his agent have started a new business venture together. He has another child on the way. His twin daughters have made the rare trip to Melbourne to watch him play. There is that little “6″ next to his name on the seeding, and whatever his ranking means, the number 6 sure as hell looks strange.
What can happen when your life is changing is that even the familiar can look weird. You wake up in your own bed and wonder where you are. You come to an intersection on the way to work and wonder whether you’re supposed to turn. It’s not really a question of confidence, or of digging deeper or fighting harder. It’s making the kind of good decisions that help the smaller choices take care of themselves; it’s making the kind of good decisions that help you hold onto your sense of yourself.
It’s hard, impossible for some. As John McEnroe grew older, it became harder for him to bat the ball in alignment with his perfect awareness of geometry. His outbursts grew desperate. They didn’t necessarily hurt his game — sometimes they helped — but they were self-destructive. “I shouldn’t be playing tennis now,” he told the New York Times after one loss. “I’m letting things affect me and I’m embarrassed.” He had to take time off. Jimmy Connors has spoken openly about the almost unbearable psychic pain he felt at the end of his career. Federer is not remotely like McEnroe nor Connors, of course, but that doesn’t matter. The disorientation is the point. Sometimes it can happen midcareer. When Nadal was losing to Djokovic, all the time, in 2011, he seemed lost. Nadal — a master tactician — had trouble reading Djokovic’s patterns and sometimes played reactively. He grew angry. It seems like a long time ago now. Nadal figured out how to change his game, heal his knee, and make strategic adjustments. He did it while returning to what he did best, which was fight. Pete Sampras rode his serve into the twilight and chose the moment to retire. Andre Agassi kept playing “because I choose to play,” he later wrote in his autobiography, Open. Having felt forced to become a tennis player when he was young, he decided to see himself as free. So he changed his approach (and his body), even though his opponents were quitting, and new players were beating him, and he was physically hurting. A good decision, not a rational choice.
Federer really is old, as these things go. It may be that his body will break down before he can figure out how to adjust to his new weaknesses. It may be that his body just doesn’t have that unbelievable ability to rebound, the way Djokovic, Nadal, and Andy Murray can recover from a series of best-of-five-set matches over the course of a two-week slam. But that’s not who Federer is anyway. Federer has never been a player who wins the purely physical battle. He won because he was like no one else. He had more variety. He innovated. He folded his shots into different shapes. He has uncommon athletic gifts, but he has thrived because of his intelligence, his ability to recognize and exploit openings, to play with more variety, to pick the perfect shot, to be daring — which is not the same thing as being mindlessly aggressive. He used to be able to take that for granted. Now, he is going to have to learn how to trust himself.
Federer is not going to become a better player now than he once was. He might not be able to halt the decline at all. I don’t know whether someone who played so close to perfection can figure out how to handle having days when he’s not seeing the ball well, when his back hurts, or when things just seem off. There are days when his game is going to be ugly and he’s going to be baffled. He’s going to shank the ball. This stage in his career might not be pretty. But, to my mind, it has the potential to be as interesting as his prime.
If he does make it to the quarters of the Australian Open, he’ll probably face Andy Murray; if he somehow made it past Murray, in the semifinals he would likely face Nadal. He is not going to win his fifth Aussie in 2014. Federer will need courage from the start. He will need luck. He will need to figure out how to make fewer rational choices while making more good decisions, even when his spatial sense seems off and his intuition breaks down. It might sometimes look ugly. But it will certainly be fascinating to watch.