ESPN Tennis: Australian Open
January, 13, 2014
By Matt Wilansky | ESPN.com
Perhaps nothing speaks to the proliferation of cutting-edge technology more than that small child who wanders over to a window, presses on it and waits for an app to pop up. It might sound comical, but it’s the world we live in. Modernization has skewed their poor little minds. Heck, my kid knows cloud better as data-syncing storage space rather than the white stuff in the sky.
In the tennis world, Babolat has recently manufactured a racket with built-in sensors that measure power, impact and spin. We are a technology-dependent society, which means we have to keep up with the latest advancements to have any shot at a competitive edge.
Roger Federer has always been on top of his tennis game, but history shows he has been a little late to the digital-world dance. Not until May 23, 2013, did he have a Twitter account. Keep in mind there already were more than 500 million people registered at that point. And not until just a few weeks ago did the 17-time Slam champion decide to finally make the permanent move to a larger, more powerful, present-day racket.
“I've wanted to change for a number of years, but I kept on playing well in the Slams, kept on playing well on the tour,” Federer told reporters in his pre-tournament presser. “Things were just going so well I only did minor changes to my racket. Since 2002, I haven't fiddled around the racket-head size.”
First, give the man credit. Even after his days of dominating day in, day out ended, Federer still was one of the best players in the world, even with that underperforming relic. Until this past Wimbledon, he had reached 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals, a remarkable display of consistency on the biggest of stages.
But the bottom line is that he was being outhit and outmaneuvered by not just the Nadals and Djokovics (both of whom have been using advanced rackets for some time), but the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych were making Federer look every bit his three-plus decades of age.
After an experimental run last summer with a larger head, one that produced mixed results, Federer felt that bigger was the only way to get better.
“Now I've really been putting in a lot of hours on the racket,” Federer said. “It feels good. I'm really looking forward to playing now with that racket here at the Australian Open as well after playing Brisbane already.”
Federer played well in Brisbane until a barrage of shanks for a set and a half against Lleyton Hewitt in the final ended his run. But it was an auspicious start for a guy who is trying to sweep away last season’s doldrums.
Certainly the foundation of any great champion doesn’t start with only his equipment, but in a game in which spin, rapid-fire exchanges and response matter, every nanosecond counts. Federer was at a fairly large disadvantage, and by the time he made a concerted effort to catch up, he wasn’t in the right frame, so to speak, of mind.
“After Wimbledon this year, I finally had a bit more time and I'd like to do an initial test,” Federer said. “I was going to do some more after the US Open, but I wasn't in the mood for that, so I waited for the end of the year and did some more testing there.”
There’s an arms race between companies to innovate and produce the best performing equipment out there. Terms like ESP, Graphene and Amplifeel are now commonplace in the racket business. Though it might be too convoluted to dissect the various ingredients that make up today’s sticks, they do account for the unprecedented power and control in today’s game.
For Federer, whether we’re talking 140 characters or 98 square inches, technological awareness might not be his greatest gift, but he can adapt quickly. After joining the Twittersphere, Federer was pulling in record-setting traffic with more than 24,000 new followers an hour. Today, he is a social media star.
As for his on-court success? The truth is we don't know how much it will factor into his 2014 results, but he's certainly committed. And if he finds himself exiting tournaments early again, there's at least some small consolation: more time to tweet.