ESPN Tennis: Roger Federer

Roger Federer's Davis Cup challenge

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
12:48
PM ET
Roger Federer is learning that you may be the all-time Grand Slam champion, a distinguished 33-year-old ambassador for the game, a friend of Michael Jordan and Anna Wintour, and a guy with some hefty hotel bills, considering his two sets of twins, but it still doesn’t get you a free pass to anything a player of your stature might really covet.

This applies with added emphasis to the Davis Cup, where the curious mix of five matches (or “rubbers”) in three days, the choice-of-ground rule (teams alternate hosting ties, no matter how much time transpires between meetings), the importance of the “swing match” doubles and the volatile nature of playing for your country instead of yourself can wreck the form chart in the blink of an eye.

Federer wants to add a Davis Cup championship to his CV; it’s the only piece of his career puzzle that’s still missing. Various factors -- lack of a solid Swiss No. 2 singles player, the siren call of Grand Slam titles, a reluctance to X-out four weeks on the calendar when he made his schedule -- kept the all-time men’s Grand Slam singles champion from pursuing that goal when he was most dominant on the tour.

But over the past year, Stan Wawrinka finally embraced his talent, won the Australian Open and established himself as a top-five player. It did not go unnoticed by Federer, who is still highly competitive at majors but struggling to actually win them. He saw his chance to win a Davis Cup and leaped on it. Some conceded the championship to Federer and Wawrinka the moment Spain (without Rafael Nadal) and Serbia (without Novak Djokovic) flamed out in the first round of the competition, the latter beaten by, yup, Federer & Co.

It sure looked like that coveted free pass for Federer -- or at least it did until this weekend, when the French popped up to complicate things.

Federer and Wawrinka will travel to France at the end of November to meet Les Bleus. Both teams advanced Sunday, with Federer sewing up a fairly smooth win over Italy in Geneva with a fourth-rubber win over the visitor’s top player, Fabio Fognini.

But the French were already sitting with their feet up, sipping champagne by the time Federer finished cleaning Fabulous Fabio’s clock. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga & Co. swept the Czech Republic (who, led by No. 6 Tomas Berdych, were hoping to three-peat) on a gorgeous, sunny weekend at Stade Roland Garros. Now the French look suspiciously like that proverbial “team of destiny.”

Les Bleus have won nine Davis Cup titles, going back to the 1920s and those famous “Four Musketeers.” But they are 0-2 in finals since 2002 and have been accused of playing under potential. That certainly seemed the case when they were one match from elimination for 2014 after just one day of Davis Cup play in April. They lost the first two singles matches of the quarterfinals to a pair of German journeymen. (The average ranking of the French singles players in the tie was 15; that of the Germans sounded more like the call numbers for a light FM radio station: 101.5.)

Badly stung, France snapped to life and averted disaster with a 3-2 win. They then clobbered the Czechs. France’s three singles stars, Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, have been playing some terrific tennis. They have an excellent doubles player in Michael Llodra and a good sub in Julien Benneteau.

It’s hard to imagine the tie will be played outdoors in France so late in the year (Nov. 21-23). That ought to help Federer, whose game really shines under ideal ambient conditions. But that won’t be a major factor. It’s just a small break for a great champion who isn’t getting away with anything in his Davis Cup quest.
videoFor Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori, breaking through in a Grand Slam wasn't a question of game, ability or effort. It wasn't about being able to do it. It was about actually doing it.

For that, Cilic and Nishikori needed help from others who had done it. In Goran Ivanisevic and Michael Chang, they found their ideal coaching counterparts -- former Grand Slam champions who had similar backgrounds but also possessed attributes that they were searching for.

For Cilic, Ivanisevic was a fellow Croatian and sporting inspiration who had previously helped Cilic's career from arm's length but was now going to be hands-on in steering his game.

The 25-year-old had been coached by Ivanisevic's former coach Bob Brett and began working with Ivanisevic a year ago, when he returned to the tour from an anti-doping suspension that was attributed to a mistakenly purchased product and reduced in length. In addition to the renewed motivation Cilic got from the unsettling experience of testing positive, the new coaching arrangement has re-energized his career.

Ivanisevic's most obvious contribution has been helping Cilic with his serve, as the former Wimbledon champion had one of the most formidable deliveries in history. As Cilic struck service winner after service winner in his three-set win against Roger Federer in the US Open semifinals, including three aces while wrapping up the match, Ivanisevic said, "It's like watching myself."

But he has also had a wider effect on his younger compatriot, with his famous humor and personality helping bring some balance to the serious, hard-working Cilic.

That might be the biggest thing Ivanisevic has brought to his team, notes Cilic, the new US Open champion. He had reached the top 10 in 2010 but admits he started enjoying the game less and saw his ranking slip into the teens and 20s.

But there was more to the new mindset than that. For a tall, rangy player, Cilic had a conservative game, one Ivanisevic encouraged him to exchange for a more daring one.

"At the beginning when we started to work, we sat together and Goran told me that my game and my tennis has to be aggressive tennis," said Cilic. "I can't play too much tactically because most of the times before I was dealing too much with the tactics against players and not focusing on my game.

"It wasn't easy to change my perspective and to change completely my mindset. It took ... five, six months of the tournaments to be able to sink that into me and that I know on the court that's the right way for me to play. That was the most difficult part."

Ivanisevic agrees that the message took a while to deliver.

"[Cilic] was not very offensive before," he said. "You have to risk. If you don't risk, you don't know what can happen. So I tried to push him. He responded well. He was not easy, but this is the result."

The new coach also points to Cilic's fitness.

"He's covering the court well, and all the credit to the physical trainer; he really push him," Ivanisevic said. "But this year he push him even more and he really responded well."

[+] EnlargeKei Nishikori
Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesKei Nishikori's work with former French Open champ Michael Chang has sparked a renaissance in the 24-year-old's game.
At about the same time Ivanisevic and Cilic were beginning their collaboration, Chang was in the hallways at the US Open talking to Nishikori's team about coming on board. The two began working together during the offseason, with Nishikori also keeping his regular full-time coach.

Like the Croatian pair, Chang and Nishikori had a lot in common: an Asian background, a tennis childhood in the United States, small stature and striking speed. What Chang had, and Nishikori sometimes seemed to be lacking, was unquenchable competitiveness during matches and a willingness to push his limits.

As Ivanisevic did with Cilic, Chang told Nishikori to play a bigger game for bigger impact. Nishikori has said this approach is behind his rise this year, with Chang telling him to be "a little more aggressive than before and stepping more in."

"I think there are similarities there," Chang told reporters during the US Open. "There are style similarities. Obviously being Chinese, he's Japanese, there's cultural differences, but there's cultural similarities as well.

"I think mentality generally, being a little bit more on the quieter side, is something I understand a little more. So those similarities obviously make it a little bit easier to work with him and to communicate."

Despite his good five-set record, Nishikori has been frequently injured, including withdrawing from the Miami semifinals and retiring during the Madrid final this year. The 24-year-old almost didn't play the US Open either, having had a cyst removed from his right foot and not playing for three weeks. But Chang pushed the case for playing, saying, "Get through the first two matches and anything can happen."

"I gave him examples that I have known for myself and for Pete Sampras, where [we] were not quite sure if we were going to play and ended up having a great result," said Chang. "I actually ended up getting to the finals of the French in 1995 [after] almost pulling out of the tournament."

So Nishikori kept training, arrived at the US Open almost a week before for extra preparation and coasted to the second week. But Chang wasn't letting up.

"I just keep telling him, 'We're not done yet,'" Chang said. "I'm always trying to encourage him. I don't want him to be satisfied with round of 16.

"It's easy to be able to be satisfied with that, because his best result was a round of 16. Gets to the quarters, I think easy to be satisfied with that. You have the opportunity to win a Grand Slam, you have the opportunity to win your first major, you take advantage of it, and you come as best as possibly prepared as you can."

A pair of four-hour matches followed and then a four-set defeat of top-seed Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.

Despite reaching his first Grand Slam final, Nishikori didn't seem satisfied with a three-set defeat at the hands of Cilic, talking about building on his performance and having more chances.

The champion's mentality of the two champion coaches certainly had a noticeable impact on both Cilic and Nishikori at the beginning of their partnerships. A year later, it all came together at the US Open.

Along with everything else, don't discount the effect of having a former idol join a player's team. Several current players have benefited from working with well-known names this season.

The coaches get something from it too, with Ivanisevic saying that watching Cilic win was not unlike his famous Wimbledon victory and Chang citing an opportunity to do something for Asian tennis, just as his older brother Carl did for him.

"There has been only one other Asian man that has broken into the top 10, and that was Paradorn [Srichaphan]," Chang said. "Being in that 15-16 range, there was actually a fair amount of similarities because I was stuck in that range in 1990, 1991, until Carl came and coached me.

"So I felt I have an opportunity to be able to help a young, very talented Asian player be able to take his game to the next level."

The two US Open finalists knew how to play. Now, their coaches are showing them how to win.

Reason for Roger Federer's rebound

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
11:33
PM ET
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NEW YORK -- Roger Federer couldn’t help but be himself a year ago. Which was unfortunate.

For more than 2½ painful hours, Tommy Robredo outhit, outmaneuvered and pretty much out-tennised Federer in every aspect until the former five-time US Open champ couldn’t take it anymore. The truth is that it was hard to watch but not completely unexpected considering the year Federer was having. When the match here in New York mercifully ended, he could barely muster the strength to wave to packed house that failed miserably to lift his spirits.

And worse, Federer’s performance was far from the rock-bottom result he had experienced just weeks earlier at Wimbledon.

But true to his form, Federer spoke with an air of optimism afterward. “I want to play better. I know I can.”

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty ImagesPretty sweet start for Roger Federer, who is playing his first Grand Slam as a 33-year-old.
Turns out, all Federer needed was a new piece of hardware to get him on track. And no, we’re not talking about trophies, though that’s certainly a sweet little byproduct of his newfound success this season. Back in January, Federer permanently began using a blacked-out prototype racket, one with a markedly larger head size that would not only increase his own power but also help him stay competitive with the collective muscle in today’s game.

A few weeks ago in Toronto, the finishing touches were unveiled in Federer’s newest frame, which has been officially named the Pro Staff RF97 Autograph. According to Wilson Tennis, the racket “features a 26-percent wider beam” and a “10 percent larger sweet spot.”

Federer found that sweet spot frequently Tuesday night with a straight-sets win against Marinko Matosevic in the first round of the US Open. Federer was broken just once and now has won 10 of 11 matches since losing the Wimbledon final.

Afterward, though, Federer wasn't talking about Federer or his racket. How could he when His Airness was in the building?

"He was one of the smoothest movers out there," Federer said of Michael Jordan. "There are so many things that he did well and represented the game really nicely, I thought."

For the record, Federer has represented his game nicely, too, though six years have passed since Federer last won the title here. It wasn’t until an unsettling fallow period in 2013 that things devolved into a dire, desperate existence. And that’s when he finally made the decision to swap his dated relic for something with a little more punch.

ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who coached Andre Agassi to the No. 1 player in the world, sees a tangible difference in Federer’s game.

“He’s been using this racket for eight months, so he’s used to it,” Cahill said. “It's more now an extension of his arm. I don't think it's throwing him any curves. I think his game has picked up. I think it's definitely helped him on his serve, especially the first serve where he's getting a lot of easy power, and that means he doesn't have to press on his serve, so he's hitting his targets much better. That all means he's getting a lot of free points on his serve.”

Tennis players are notoriously creatures of habit. They like what they like. Since his maiden Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer had essentially used the same racket, albeit with a slight manipulation in its mold and, of course, with cosmetic overhauls. But by and large, Federer was unwilling to make any drastic changes.

With 17 Grand Slam titles, an all-time record 302 weeks atop the rankings, 22 Masters 1000 wins and his own area code in tennis’ grand pantheon, who’s to blame him?

Still, the low-hanging dark clouds couldn’t be ignored. Federer’s ranking fell to No. 8 -- his lowest since 2002 -- and coming into this season, there was a new, less ambitious reality. Slam titles and ranking points gave way to mere respectability. But Federer was far from acknowledging his tennis mortality.

“He made three adjustments,” Cahill said. “The racket has been crucial to him, especially playing against the power players where it's given him a bigger sweet spot and is allowing him to get a lot more of those shots, especially the hard, fast shots down the middle of the court. He can now block those back and that's where the racket is also helping him. I think he's healthy, which is a huge part of it. And, obviously, making a coaching change also reinvigorated him.”

So, Rog, why the wait to change frames?

“Basically, it was a year ago where I started the racket-testing after Wimbledon,” Federer said. “Anyway, it's a long process. But actually, it all went pretty quickly because I did not use it again here actually for this tournament. Right before I switched my mind, I switched and I said, 'OK, I'll play the year normally.'

“After all the back issues I had, I needed to first figure out what's going on with my game and my back. So I really lost a few months there.”

Anyway, that was so then. As it stands right now, Federer has 50 match wins this season, more than any other player navigating the tour. And this includes his championship run at the Cincinnati Masters a couple of weeks ago. Make that three titles and eight finals in 2014, also the best on circuit.

“After about two months, the fear wasn’t whether he'd decide to go back to an old racket,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. “Now, if he went back to his old stick, he'd be worse. He's totally used to this racket, and it's made him a much better player. I think that now the racket is second nature for him.”

And second nature just might lead him to first place in two weeks’ time.


videoThe hardcourt season kicks into high gear this week in Toronto, but it's already very different from what we saw a year ago.

Then, Rafael Nadal was on a rampage, winning the Masters events in Montreal and Cincinnati, and taking the U.S. Open to go undefeated on North American hardcourts.

This year, Nadal is back in Mallorca with an injured right wrist, practicing with a splint to try to get ready for the U.S. Open. Not being able to defend his Masters titles will cost him 2,000 ranking points, with another 2,000 at stake at Flushing Meadows. Even if the Spaniard does play there he will be going into the Grand Slam tournament where he's had the least success, which will make defending his title a huge challenge.

Nadal and Novak Djokovic are so far in front of the field that Nadal will keep his world No. 2 ranking either way, but his absence creates a big hole in the draw. He dominated this stretch of the season in 2013, and at least two of those titles will be won by someone else. But who?

Djokovic is the obvious candidate to fill the vacancy, having just won Wimbledon and already swept Indian Wells and Miami on American hardcourts this year. This is his best surface, allowing him to move securely and outmanuever opponents.

Djokovic is also playing his first event as a married man, brimming with elation from a month with "the Wimbledon title, a wedding and of course a baby coming up."

"I'm going back to the business, back to my office, but of course filled with positive energy, with joy, all the beautiful emotions that a person can experience," he said before Toronto, insisting that it would not be difficult to return his attention back to the court.

"But it's been many years already that I have been on the professional tour and with the same team of people around me."

Djokovic might be primed to replicate Nadal's 2013 dominance, but there's another thing that has changed from a year ago: Roger Federer is in form and eyeing big titles again. Back problems and a U.S. Open defeat to Tommy Robredo have been left behind, with Federer climbing back to No. 3 armed with a bigger racket, a new coach in Stefan Edberg and, oh, two more kids in tow.

With his racket offering more serving power and Edberg on hand for tips on volleys, the 17-time Grand Slam champion has been going to net more often, looking for a new way to win points against the relentless baseline games of Djokovic and Nadal. He serve-and-volleyed frequently on grass, but there is now the question of how often he will move forward when playing on hardcourts.

Like Djokovic, Federer has had plenty happening off the court as well. He and wife Mirka welcomed a second set of twins during the clay season, and Federer finally got to spend some extended time with the newborn boys following Wimbledon. Following his 2013 frustrations, Federer seems to be able to relax more these days.

"I don't have to defend like 12 tournaments a year. I only won one last year, so from that standpoint I feel like you make points every week. I feel like I don't really have to prove anything to anybody even though people are always going to disagree with that," he said.

"For me it's about how do I feel in practice, how is my motivation, how am I actually really playing, how do I feel it rather than how is everybody else thinking they see and know it. I can analyze it much more clearer today than I ever have."

Andy Murray is also in a very different position from a year ago, going from being Wimbledon champion to No. 10 in the rankings following back surgery and a high-profile coaching change from Ivan Lendl to Amelie Mauresmo. But Murray has often done well at this time of year, and could be ready to start moving back up.

"I feel good. I train hard. After Wimbledon I didn't take too much time off. I feel like I'm ready to play some good tennis," Murray said of having trained in Miami before the hardcourt season.

While Djokovic, Federer and Murray lifting big trophies is a familiar sight, what's new is the ranks of younger players crowding the top 10. Though established players like Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych are still contenders, it is the likes of 23-year-olds Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov who have been making waves more recently.

With Nadal sidelined, will any one of them step into the gap? They are aware of the opportunity, as Raonic suggested at Washington when Nadal announced his withdrawal.

"It's unfortunate to see him go but there are too many that are hungry and are licking their chops," said Raonic.

Now comes two weeks of competing for position going into the US Open, where a Nadal comeback would add even more intrigue.

At least one of the competitors is looking forward to seeing what develops.

"I think it's a very interesting time in the game right now," said Federer, "and I think the second half of the season is going to be super interesting."
videoThe back-to-back ATP Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati begin this week, with the players competing on the court for about $7 million in total prize money. Behind the scenes, they're competing with the tournaments for an even larger amount.

The ATP Player Council is pushing for significant increases in prize money from the Masters 1000s, whose agreements are up for renewal this year. Three years ago, they agreed to an increase of 9 percent a year, but the players are seeking bigger payouts.

"We are looking for more, yes," said Eric Butorac, vice president of the council, in an interview with ESPN.com.

That's because the tournaments grew at more than twice the rate they were expected to, explained Butorac, who is ranked No. 27 in doubles. "Even with their 9 percent increase," he said, "as a total unit, they grew at a 7 percent rate per year."

Players have previously emphasized their aim of getting a larger share of the amount tournaments make.

The growth of the Masters 1000 events is in contrast to some of the smaller 500- and especially 250-level tournaments, where attendance and sponsorship problems are frequent. Such events often have difficulty attracting top players and must pay a large amount for the big names -- often six figures for a player like Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Andy Murray.

But players are required to show up at the eight Masters events (plus one optional), which take place at Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo (optional), Madrid, Rome, Toronto or Montreal, Cincinnati, Shanghai and Paris. That has allowed the tournaments to benefit from increased interest in the top men's players, especially the huge popularity of the Big Four, given their dominance of the men's game in recent years.

The players argue that they should receive some of the extra money, which they say is generated by their growing following. They have also stated their general aim of getting a larger share of the amount tournaments make.

"So I think just with the way the top players are playing, and the ability to have a tournament that contains players like Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, it's just so valuable," said Butorac. "Those tournaments have really thrived. So we hope we can be compensated adequately."

According to Sports Business Journal, the council is looking for prize money at the Masters events to double within the next four years, but the tournaments want the figure to be much lower. The two sides are currently in talks.

The push follows the significant increases that have been secured from the Grand Slams, which have been upping their purses by large amounts. The U.S. Open, for example, will pay $38.3 million this year and has committed to giving $50 million in three years' time, double the amount it gave two years ago.

But the Grand Slams are independent of the ATP, while the Masters tournaments are tour events. That means things will operate a little differently this time around. With the ATP board made up of both tournament and player representatives, the organization is, in a sense, attempting to reach a deal with itself.

That can create some ambiguity, said Butorac. "Most sports, they have a union," he said. "But with us having a bipartisan board, it is a different battle."

The board consists of the CEO, three tournament representatives and three player representatives. The ATP Player Council is made up of current players who are elected by their fellow professionals. Things have changed there as well, noted one observer.

During the discussions with the Grand Slams, then-Player Council president Roger Federer was instrumental in getting the majors on board, personally attending meetings and putting forward the players' case. But now a father of four and no longer the dominating player he once was, Federer decided not to run for re-election this year.

That means it is unclear who will lead the player effort, though it certainly will not be anyone with the stature of 17-time Slam champion Federer. New members of the council include John Isner and Stanislas Wawrinka, and the new president will be elected at the US Open. Wawrinka, Federer's friend and compatriot as well as the highest-ranked player on the council, has expressed an interest in becoming the president.

But there will be no let-up in the council's demands for more prize money, because more militant members like Sergiy Stakhovsky and Gilles Simon have stayed on. With most of the same players involved, the council has been able to have a consistent message.

"About six years now, to have a similar group of guys over a long period of time is really helpful," said Butorac.

The goal, he said, is for players and tournaments to reach a "mutually agreeable place and nothing drastic happens."

The tournaments want something similar.

"They're pretty much on the same page; we're aware of their desires," said Karl Hale, tournament director of the Rogers Cup in Toronto. "The parties involved are working together to reach a conclusion, and I'm sure they will."

Any increase would apply to all the nine Masters events, though their individual finances and resources differ -- something that is likely an issue in the discussions. Some, like Toronto, are run by national associations that use the proceeds to fund grass-roots development, while others like Indian Wells are privately owned. But Hale said the Canadian stop, which has the advantage of being two weeks before the US Open, generally has an attractive field and is prepared.

"Toronto's one of the top stops on the tour for the players," he said. "We've talked about this in years leading up to this, so I think we're in a very, very good position for that."

While the two sides are not in agreement about how to share the proceeds of their recent growth, it's a good problem to have.

"But all in all, the tour's good," Butorac said. "Players need to hear that little bit, tournaments need to be aware of that. We've been as successful as we've ever been. The tour's making more money.

"So tennis worldwide is in a really good place."

And for the players, should they succeed, it's about to get even better.
videoIt's quite a way to warm up for a wedding.

Novak Djokovic gave himself a Wimbledon title as a present before marrying longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic this week at a luxury resort in Montenegro. The two are also expecting their first child, so Djokovic has plenty happening both on the court and off it.

Walking in fresh from holding up the trophy at the All England Club, the Serb had laughed at being asked whether he was going to resume training right away.

"Straight to practice," he grinned, joking about finding some hard courts around Wimbledon.

No, he is instead taking a bit of a break from the game.

"I think I can close the chapter of my tennis career just for little bit now," he said. "I think I deserve that for a few weeks to rest, to enjoy, be with my fiancée -- my wife-to-be -- and my family."

But Djokovic will be something of a different player once he returns to the game. Not only will he be a married man, but he will also be No. 1 in the world again, having returned to the top following his seventh Grand Slam victory. The biggest change, however, might be a mental one.

Coming into Wimbledon, Djokovic talked about the effect of not winning a Grand Slam tournament since the 2013 Australian Open, saying three defeats in Slam finals since then had affected his confidence in big moments. He brought on Boris Becker as a coach specifically to help him play better at those times, but he fell to Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open this year and looked mentally and physically drained against Rafael Nadal at the French Open.

Even during the Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, Djokovic had the match well in hand during the fourth set but was broken three times after going up a break. But this time, he was able to gather himself. Like Andy Murray at the US Open two years ago, Djokovic left the court for a break after the fourth set and gave himself a lecture.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic has kissed the Wimbledon trophy and his new bride, and is resting up ahead of hard court action.
"I needed some time to refocus and forget about what happened in the fourth set," said Djokovic. "I had these positive words of encouragement to say to myself.

"I managed to have my convictions stronger than my doubts in this moment and managed to push myself the very last step to win the trophy."

That mental victory, combined with Djokovic's statement that it was the "highest quality" Grand Slam match he has played, led him to describe the contest as the "most special Grand Slam final I've played. At the time of my career for this Grand Slam trophy to arrive is crucial, especially, as I said, after losing several Grand Slam finals in a row."

The coaching relationship with Becker is also on better footing. Following the Australian Open, Djokovic's victories at Indian Wells and Miami were both with his long-term coach Marian Vadja, who was expected to be at tournaments only occasionally. Djokovic also asked Vadja to accompany Becker to the clay-court event at Rome, which is where the Serb says he and Becker finally began to communicate effectively.

"We won the tournament, the three of us, and it was actually the time when I started feeling much closer to Boris and when I actually understood what message he is trying to convey to me," said Djokovic.

Both coaches were at the French Open, as scheduled, and Becker was the only one with Djokovic at Wimbledon. Going on to win the tournament will have given the Serb more confidence in the setup, allowing him to be more settled at other tournaments.

He also expects the win to give him a lift for the rest of the season. "I'm going to try to use it in the best possible way and for my confidence to grow," he said.

All that means the new No. 1 will be the player to beat heading into the hard-court season. Djokovic now has the best winning percentage on the tour on hard courts, his favorite surface, having won 82.6 percent of his matches.

There could be other challenges, though. He has also had physical problems this season, injuring his wrist just before his first clay-court tournament and knocking his shoulder during a fall at Wimbledon, along with the usual aches and niggles. Most of the time it has not stopped him from competing, but the wear and tear could start to show as the season goes along.

For the moment, however, Djokovic has reasserted himself, setting up an interesting hard-court season. There is expected to be a resumption of his rivalry with Nadal, who was in dominant hard-court form a year ago but has produced some up-and-down performances this season.

Other Slam champs like Federer, Wawrinka and Murray will also be in the hunt, as will a group of younger players -- like Wimbledon semifinalists Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic -- who are emerging as contenders for bigger titles this season. It is a bigger cast than in recent years, leading to a more competitive field.

But all that will take shape in a few weeks. For now, Djokovic's attention is elsewhere. Specifically, at a resort in Montenegro.

"I’m very excited and joyful about the period that is coming up," he said.
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When a superstar talks about another superstar and compares said superstar to yet another superstar, it creates enough buzz to call pest control.

Such was the case when Andre Agassi, in a recent interview with Singapore newspaper Straits Times, endorsed Rafael Nadal, not Roger Federer, as the greatest of all time.

First, kudos to Agassi for actually having a steadfast opinion and not going all, um, Switzerland on us.

This debate, Rafa versus Fed, has raged on for years, perhaps over a half a decade. You could make the argument that no two players in any sport have ever been pinned against each other in a GOAT debate as much as these two fellows, at least in recent times. For the purposes of this article, let’s save this duel for another time.

I'm actually wondering if there are any compelling arguments to be made that Andre Agassi was a greater tennis player than Pete Sampras.

Hmmm …

To the board we go:

The Case For Agassi

•  A career Grand Slam: And Agassi did it in an era when no one was winning on all surfaces, not even Sampras. Before Agassi, the last player to successfully wend his way to the trophy table at all four majors was Rod Laver, a feat he completed in 1962, when he actually pulled off the even rarer season Slam. Today, Federer and Nadal both have a career Slam, and Novak Djokovic is a French Open title away from joining this elite group. And it must be noted that Agassi won an Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, as well, which gives him the Golden Slam.

•  Longevity: Agassi played until he was 36 years old. Today, sticking around on tour into your 30s is more commonplace for a variety of reasons, but in the Agassi era, it was an aberration. Not only was Agassi a viable member of the tour at that dotage, but he was a successful one, too, making it to the US Open final a year earlier, at 35 years old. Agassi won the 2001 and 2003 Aussie Opens after turning 30. Sampras, who at 31, won the US Open in 2001 after a couple of crestfallen years and then called it quits.

•  His getup: One look at Agassi and he was a sponsorship deal waiting to happen. Loud clothes, big hair, just all-around ostentatious attire with an equally large charisma. He perhaps made the tabloids more than he wanted to, whether it was his romantic link to Barbra Streisand or marriage to Brooke Shields or his positive test for crystal meth, which he revealed in his autobiography “Open.” Still, the man made headlines compared with Sampras, who could double for plain Jane in any movie. And that really has nothing to do with anything in comparing their on-court credentials, but still …

The Case For Sampras

•  Success against multiple generations: When Sampras came along and won the US Open in 1990, guys such as Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg were still very much five-star players. Sampras had winning records against them all, young and old. He was 12-7 versus Becker, 8-6 versus Edberg, 5-3 versus Ivan Lendl, and on and on. Then it was on to the next era: 12-6 versus Goran Ivanisevic, 12-4 versus Patrick Rafter, 11-2 versus Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 6-1 versus Tim Henman, and on and on. But against his main rival, Agassi, Sampras won 20 of his 34 matches, simply dominating him in nearly every event they played, except Australia. They played in five Slam finals with Sampras winning four.

•  Time accrued as No. 1 player: Before Fed came along, Sampras set a record for the longest stint as the world’s top player, sitting atop the field for 286 weeks. Sampras finished the year as the No. 1 player on six different occasions, which to date is a record. Agassi reached the top ranking for 101 total weeks.

•  Slam success: Sampras won 14 majors, six more than Agassi. That in and of itself could end this contrived debate without saying a word more. So we’ll leave it at that.

Given Sampras’ overall body of work, including his Slam titles, stint at No. 1 and dominance over Agassi, it’s pretty clear who the more accomplished player was. But it’s fun to talk about, no?

Rafa's losses raising questions

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
6:00
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NadalJulian Finney/Getty ImagesFor the first time in quite some time, Rafael Nadal truly looks vulnerable on clay.

As Rafael Nadal slogged off the court last week in Barcelona, something seemed somewhat amiss. Perhaps it was that a certain world No. 1 left town without biting down on another winner’s trophy. Gone was his 41-match win streak and a shot at a record ninth straight title in his beloved home-country tourney.

For the second straight tournament -- oh, and on clay we remind you -- Rafa was booted early. How significant is this? Since 2005, Nadal was 276-12 on clay before falling to Nicolas Almagro at the Barcelona Open. Some might say that’s pretty good.

But now after coming up short during the hard-court Masters swing in Indian Wells and Miami, and foundering on the dirt so far, for the first time in his career Nadal looks like he might have feet of clay -- or at least a foot of clay. Unless things drastically turn around in Madrid and Rome, Rafa will enter the French Open with a few question marks for the first time in a decade. Heck, Vince Spadea was more or less a relevant player the last time Nadal wasn’t considered a lock to win at Roland Garros.

With that in mind, here are some burning clay-court questions we posed to ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert before the tour takes off for Madrid next week:

Concerned about Rafa?

Brad Gilbert: “Not going to say any concerns, but Nadal is about to be 28. The expectation is perfection every time, and it’s difficult to do that. Djokovic has started to play a lot better tennis and the emergence of Stan Wawrinka will be factors in Paris. And it’s just so hard to [win the French Open] a couple of times, so to do this like he does every year is amazing. I’ll just say this: Never underestimate Rafa. He’ll find another gear.”

What about the world No. 1’s confidence?

Gilbert: “He’s pretty honest in that everyone thinks he’s a machine. For him, he’s loses a couple of matches -- it’s not like he’s going to win every one and every tournament -- and he feels the pressure, but maybe that’s what makes him play better. For every good athlete, there are no guarantees, but Nadal puts in the work. There are just variables in tennis and sports we can’t control, but that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with Rafa’s game.”

Whom do you have more faith in: Stanislas Wawrinka or Novak Djokovic?

Gilbert: “[Long pause] Djokovic. But Stan is the third-best player in the world -- clearly. He’s shocked me. If you had asked me about his game at the start of the season when he was No. 9, I might have said his biggest upside was only a couple of spots, but he that he might go backwards. But the biggest thing that has surprised me is how much his forehand has improved. We all talk about his backhand, but the forehand was the side that always went away. Now he’s hitting it incredibly big. He’s improved his movement quite a bit. More than anything else, his success has come at 29 years old, and he’s a much better place mentally that he’s ever been. But Djokovic has played great, and assuming his wrist is healed, he has a legit chance to win the French. And we all know how badly he wants it.”

Who’d you put your money on in Paris, Roger Federer or David Ferrer?

Gilbert: “No question, Federer. I feel like Ferrer, at 32 -- I know he beat Nadal in Monte Carlo, which I still can’t believe -- will throw in a match that can surprise you. He lost in the first round of Barcelona to Teymuraz Gabashvili. I just feel that at his age, if Ferrer wakes up and isn’t feeling great, he’s beatable by less-inferior players. He will have an occasional good tournament or good win, but I don’t see him being a factor in a Slam anymore. Federer has figured out how to reinvent his game, how to handle Djokovic, which he’s done twice. He is still passionate about winning. Ferrer loves clay, but I’d put my money on Federer.”

What’s going on with Andy Murray?

Gilbert: “When he gets [to the French Open], he’ll be 27. Murray hasn’t come back from his injury and surgery like Nadal did a year ago. And Murray’s in the process of hiring a new coach. But as long as he’s healthy and starts getting matches soon, he’ll be fine. He’s too talented, and he’ll right the ship. I am not worried about him.”

Any young players catching your eye?

Gilbert: Milos [Raonic] is still young. He showed us a bit in Monte Carlo. A guy I like in the next couple of years is the Austrian, Dominic Thiem. This kid has a one-handed backhand very similar to Stan Wawrinka’s. I like his potential; he’s a string kid. Look, the Big Four wiped out an entire generation of players in the majors, but there’s talent coming.

If you take Roger Federer at face value, his quest for a title was little more than a backdrop to the spectacle of Swiss tennis that was on display in the Monte Carlo finale Sunday.

After his semifinal win over Novak Djokovic a round earlier, Federer wistfully spoke to the moments the Spaniards, French and even the Americans have had on the same court in recent years. Federer's win put him in the title match against fellow countryman Stanislas Wawrinka, marking the first time in 14 years since there had been an all-Swiss final, when Marc Rosset beat a fledgling Federer in Marseille.

“This one is clearly very special, especially with the way he's been playing the last few months, the number of hours we spent together on court either playing doubles or practice, the times we've talked tennis,” Federer told reporters before the final. “It's nice living a moment like this together in a finals. It's really wonderful.”

But the emergence Wawrinka, the Australian Open champ, has altered the order of tennis’ hierarchy, while giving the Swiss a true intra-national rivalry. Now, four months into the tennis season, there appears to be clear order within the country.

Wawrinka climbed his way out of a one-set deficit to beat Federer 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2 to win Monte Carlo, picking up his first career Masters series title. Make that one major and one Masters title for Wawrinka in 2014. MVP so far, anyone?

"Well, it already change last year when I start to first make my first quarter in French Open, final in Madrid, my first semifinal in US Open," Wawrinka told reporters afterward. "I start to realize I be able to beat all the players. That's what I am doing this year and I'm doing well.

"I'm surprised where I am, but I'm not surprised when I see how I play on the court, how I move, the way I'm winning those match."

Wawrinka ended an 11-match losing streak against Federer, just months after he snapped 12- and 14-match losing streaks to Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, in Melbourne. Wawrinka, who is now 6-0 versus top-10 players this season, became only the third player outside the Big Four in the past 37 Masters Series events to win a title.

"I can see that when mentally I'm there and I'm fighting, I can play tennis; I can beat all the player," Wawrinka said.

All four of Federer’s Monte Carlo finals have ended in defeat. From 2006 to 2008, it was -- surprise, surprise -- Rafael Nadal who ultimately quelled the Swiss in those matches. Earlier this week, though, Nadal was bounced by his own countryman David Ferrer, and with Federer taking care of Djokovic on Saturday, the journey seemed a little less obstructed for the 17-time Slam champ.

But behind a barrage of unrelenting groundstrokes, Wawrinka wore down Federer, who, in the third set, looked every bit his 32 years of age. Wawrinka moved closer to the baseline, attacking each shot with aplomb while keeping Federer on his heels. Wawrinka won an astounding 13 of 14 points on his first serve in the final set, while breaking Federer’s serve twice and, ultimately, Federer’s spirit.

"I start to play more aggressive, trying to push him more," Wawrinka said. "Yeah, when you win a match like this, it's only one or two points, especially in the tiebreak. But I think I did a great tiebreak. I was serving big and being really aggressive.

"Then I took the advantage at the beginning of the third set. I saw that he was a little bit tired. Me, I was playing better and better, especially moving better."

Switzerland is a relatively small country, with a population just south of 8 million, and in terms of tennis stardom, the population doesn’t surpass the fingers on one hand. Only four players on both tours are currently ranked in the top 100. Wawrinka and Federer are the third- and fourth-ranked players, while Stefanie Voegele (No. 77) and Belinda Bencic (No. 91) occupy the sub-century mark on the WTA.

A little more than a year ago, it was hard to imagine we'd be speaking of Wawrinka in the same context as Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. He was a solid player with a ranking drifting back and forth between Nos. 10 and 30, but certainly not someone who we'd have picked to win significant tournaments on tour. But after coaching changes and a boost in confidence, Wawrinka is slugging the ball off both wings -- perhaps more ferociously than anyone at the moment.

"I think he served better," Federer said. "He definitely found his range. As the match went on, he started to feel more and more comfortable. I struggled to put him under pressure enough. I think it was a bit of both players: him raising his game, me maybe going down a notch. I think it's a big match, regardless of the opponent, because it's a finals. Playing Stan just adds to the excitement in some ways."

When Wawrinka finally finished off Federer on Sunday, he raised his arms in victory but with a muted celebration in deference to taking down the player who has meant so much to tennis, Switzerland and himself.

"Today it was a personal challenge," Wawrinka said. "Playing against Roger is always very special. He is the one who is really able to mix it up. For me, winning a match is already complicated, but against him it's even more difficult."

With the French Open starting exactly one month from today, based on the way things have gone so far, there’s little reason not to believe Wawrinka won’t be doing some more arm-raising when all is said and done.

"It's normal that I would be a favorite for the French Open, but I don't think so because I'm very far from players like Rafa, Novak and Roger," Wawrinka said. "Anyway, I will not change anything in the way I approach the tournaments."

Good call.

He's 32 years old now, and it's been nearly two years since he won a major, but Roger Federer still has a powerful hold on those of us who care about tennis.

His 2014 results have defied what we all supposedly knew. Coming off a shoddy season a year ago, one with losses piling up against garden-variety players, Federer has produced performances reminiscent of his dominant days. Of course, they’re not quite as frequent or consistent, but he’s fully entrenched himself back into the game’s inner circle of champions.

Apparently, we just didn't listen to Federer when he spoke of his resolve, that this season would engender bigger and better things. Our bad. Federer’s stellar play has continued this week in the first clay Masters Series event of the year. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that after he was done knocking off the hottest player in the game Saturday, Federer wasn't the central focus in the postmatch shenanigans.

After Novak Djokovic's 7-5, 6-2 loss to Federer in the Monte Carlo semifinals, the Serb announced he was going to take time off from tennis to heal his ailing right wrist. This is by all accounts a pretty big blow to Djokovic, given he is coming off back-to-back titles in Indian Wells and Miami. More so, Djokovic is one a steadfast mission to win the French Open, the only missing chunk in his Grand Slam memoir.

“This injury that has been present for last 10 days,” Djokovic told reporters, “and I tried not to think or talk about it; I did everything I could, really; I was on the medications every day; I was doing different therapies, injections, so forth.

“But in the end of the day, the end of the tournament, semifinals is a good result. But I'm disappointed that I could not play as well as I could have. From the end of the first and the whole second, every shot was pain, especially with the serve.”

This setback could go one of two ways for Djokovic: Perhaps the break will give him a breather, one he could use after playing as much tennis as he has. The downside to success is the amount of time spent on the tennis court, running, laboring and taking violent swings at tennis balls day after day. Djokovic played 10 matches between Indian Wells and Miami and, including his loss to Federer on Saturday, another four in Monte Carlo. Clay courts, more than any other surface, demand fresh legs and a fresh state of mind. Djokovic is one of the fittest players on tour, so his laborious schedule could be a moot point. But if we're breaking the season down into four parts, the clay schedule is clearly the most taxing of them all.

On the flip side, you can’t Google wrist injury and tennis without the plight of Juan Martin del Potro monopolizing your screen. The Argentine has been plagued by recurring wrist ailments since winning the US Open in 2009. That’s nearly five years ago, which speaks to the grave nature these injuries can have on players.

“Well, the good thing is I don't need to have a surgery,” Djokovic said. “I don't have any rupture or something like that. I'm going to go see doctors tonight and then tomorrow again have another MRI, see if anything changed in this seven days since I had the last one.

“I just rest now. I cannot play tennis for some time. How long, I don't know. It's really not in my hands anymore. I'm going to rest and see when it can heal 100 percent, then I will be back on the court.”

On Friday, Djokovic needed more than two hours to finish off Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, which at the time seemed like nothing more than a rare bad match from the Serb. But, obviously, something more severe was going on.

During his presser, Djokovic said the transition from hard courts to clay could have played a role in his injury. He also mentioned he “started too strong,” meaning he didn't give himself a chance to properly adjust to the strenuous nature of dirt.

“Listen, I don't regret anything I've done in my life,” Djokovic said. “I thought that at the certain moment it was the right thing to do. Last year, I played with an injured ankle, but I won the tournament. This is the only time I won this tournament that is one of my favorites.”

He went on to say that these injuries just happen, that there is no way to predict something like this popping up. Sadly, he’s right.

But the concern now isn’t exactly how Djokovic contracted his injury, but whether he’ll be healed in time for Paris.

If Stefan Edberg believes in the theory of threes, he might consider swapping out his flashy blue, yellow and gold Swedish threads for something a little more camouflage.

On Thursday, Andy Murray split with coach Ivan Lendl after two-plus years, leaving the Scott coachless as he attempts to defend his Sony Open crown.

And now, Boris Becker is taking a hiatus after undergoing surgery to repair both of his hips, leaving world No. 2 Novak Djokovic without the guidance of his most recent mentor.

Not that Roger Federer needs any advice or anything, but if we could indulge him for a moment, he should ante up whatever protection he and his camp have, assuming they subscribe to the threesome conspiracy, and shield his merger with Edberg from the wrath of whatever evil is headed his way.

But the question is, how’s this going to play out?

Well, the obvious answer is for Murray to swipe Edberg. If you haven’t heard, he’s in hot pursuit of a new mentor. And why not Edberg? Unlike the Lendl-Murray marriage, one fraught with upside-down smiley faces, the genial Edberg would add welcome sunshine on a day-to-day basis.

Now, looks can be deceiving, of course. Lendl has always maintained that he and Murray had a fun working relationship and that ubiquitous scowls were misconstrued, but c’mon, we’re talking about a coach with eight Slams on his dossier and a student who ended a seven-plus decade of British futility at Wimbledon. Smile, people!

With the caustic Murray and Edberg, a gentleman if there ever was one, joining forces, this can’t be anything less than a successful alliance.

What about Rafael Nadal? Could he pilfer the serene Swede? How cruel would that be? Not only has Rafa singlehandedly wrecked Federer with all those ruthless forehands to the Swiss’ one glaring weakness, his backhand, but imagine if the two met in the Sony Open final and Edberg and Uncle Toni we sitting cheek to cheek in the stands donning matching “Vamos!” t-shirts?

Awkward.

There are a multitude of reasons why Edberg and Federer could dissolve as swiftly as they were united earlier this year, but none that make very much sense. Perhaps something as simple as a passport issue could prevent Edberg from traveling. Maybe he wants to attempt a doubles comeback a la Martina Hingis, and doesn’t have time to pull off double duty.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report last year, over eight million people have simply vanished from the U.S. workforce. I don’t know what that number is worldwide, but a simple extrapolation means a whole lot more have suffered the same fate.

No matter how you slice it, there is something to the theory of threes, even if just anecdotally. People like to see things in patterns, and in general, we’re all a victim of superstition.

It may all be just a cruel fallacy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about Edberg-Federer somehow breaking bad.

You know what they say across tennis circles: Every once in a while an Ivan Ljubicic comes along. Never did that maxim seem more appropriate than in the desert of California four years ago.

Ljubicic was a gifted player who reached as high as No. 3 in the world. But he wasn’t exactly a guy who regularly turned lemons into lemonade, if you know what we mean. But the Croatian’s title at Indian Wells in 2010, which included wins over Rafael Nadal in the semis and Andy Roddick in the final, was possibly his career moment.

Not only that, it kind of came out of nowhere, at least when you look at the recent line of Indian Wells winners. You may have heard of the last three: Nadal in 2013, Roger Federer in 2012 and Novak Djokovic in 2011.

And before Ljubicic in 2010, in descending order, were Nadal, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Federer, Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Hewitt and Andre Agassi -- players who won a combined 46 majors. Not bad, eh? The recent history in California is pretty clear: Only the elite players have mastered the biggest tournament on the tennis calendar after the Aussie Open. Unless you’re Ljubicic, of course.

Life has been more than comfortable for the Big Four, as if you didn’t know. And it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that in the past 34 Masters 1000 events, they’ve won 32. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s a pretty favorable ratio. But not as absolute as last year’s results in last season's Masters events, which were swept by Nadal (five), Djokovic (three) and Andy Murray (one).

And why should anything change this year? After all, Nadal is your world No. 1 and well-rested. Djokovic whiffed in Dubai -- but his loss came against a rejuvenated Roger Federer. And even though Djokovic hasn’t yet won a title this season, he’s still very much the dynamic player he has always been -- at least there’s little indication he won’t turn things around.

The only major concern is for Murray, who has a middling 12-4 record in 2014 and who is just a few months removed from minor back surgery. He hasn’t advanced past the semifinals this season.

The majors, of course, are what we all pay attention to, but the nine Masters Series on the ATP calendar are eminently important, especially when you consider the guys who have triumphed the most in any season dating to 2006 (with the exception of 2007) have ended the year ranked No. 1 in the world.

The bottom line is that Indian Wells, if nothing else, is a catalyst for the top players to set the tone, to give someone momentum heading into Miami, then the taxing clay season in April. And though Ljubicic, who was one of the game’s premier workhorses, was a wonderful story and won a lucrative tourney he was deserving of, the desert in California is (news flash!) all about the Big Four and which member masters the year’s first Master.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- It was a match between familiar faces as top-seeded Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer met for the 32nd time in their career, this time at the Dubai Duty Free Championships.

Federer came from behind for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win and will be playing on Saturday for his sixth Dubai.

This rivalry is the seventh-most-contested matchup in the Open era, and Federer came into the ring -- er, the court -- with a 16-15 edge. Interestingly, they were in a dead heat on wins on hard-court surfaces at 12-12 before this semifinal broke that tie in Federer’s favor.

Coming into the match, Djokovic had won three straight over Fed, and nine of the last 12 dating back to the 2011 Australian Open semifinals. Djokovic twice had three consecutive wins over Federer during that span but had not beaten him four matches in a row, and that streak remains intact.

So what did we learn on Friday? Here are five things:

1. Federer never gives up: One trait Federer prides himself on is never giving up. Whether he’s leading or trailing, he keeps on going, believing if he hangs in long enough he’ll find an way to get back in the match. That’s exactly how he played it against Djokovic. Fed watched the first set go by fairly easily, surrendering his first service game in the match to give Djokovic an early 2-0 lead. But Federer dug in his heels after that, and after he broke Djokovic’s serve in the sixth game of the second set, the momentum shifted.

He solidified that shift when he broke Djokovic’s serve in the opening game of the third and added a bonus break in the fifth game. When Federer went jogging out to his side of the court with a 5-1 lead and Djokovic waiting to serve, he was sending a clear message: Even at 32, he's still spry and able to turn a match around against a high-quality player.

2. The Federer-Edberg partnership is working: Federer appears to be listening to the advice part-time coach Stefan Edberg is giving. That message is likely a strong suggestion that Federer needs to establish a better relationship with the net. Federer spoke a number of times this week about interesting conversations with his new mentor.

Edberg must be promoting the benefits of the serve-and-volley, as well as the best way to transition from a defensive position to an offensive one. Fed can volley -- and volley well -- but too often spends time hanging back behind the baseline. Why work so hard if you don’t have to? And at age 32, playing catch-up is probably not the best strategy. Once Federer started to approach and volley in the match he had the advantage and forced Djokovic into a more defensive position. It’s a strategy Federer should stay with to help him remain relevant. (On a side note, Edberg is not here in Dubai this week.)

3. Djokovic failed to adjust: Djokovic was clearly comfortable when Federer offered him the early lead. He likes to be a front-runner, which he was throughout the first set. But once Federer rebounded in the second set, Djokovic didn’t change his game to counter the strategy changes Federer made. Djokovic hired Boris Becker with the hope Becker can help him mentally close out matches he should win, and this semifinal match against Federer was exactly the type of match Djokovic had in mind. Djoker had the early edge and gave it away. Maybe Djokovic should try to steal some Becker tips on being aggressive, being comfortable coming to net and when at the net. It might be a better use of Becker’s salary and time.

4. Tennis and home life are meshing for Fed: Federer has made a habit of separating his home life mode from his tennis life, whether here in Dubai (where he maintains an apartment) or at home in Switzerland, when playing a tournament he normally checks into a hotel and lives a tournament lifestyle. He spoke earlier in the week about it helping him to put his game face on.

This time around, however, he’s done something unusual by staying at his own place, saying his twin daughters seemed settled at home and he didn’t want to disrupt that by packing up and pulling into the hotel. While many players are addicted to routine -- hello, Rafael Nadal -- Federer seems to be able to adapt himself to new situations, something that fatherhood probably has had a hand in. With a new child on the way, that can only be a continued plus.

5. Dubai belongs to Federer: Any way you look at it, both Federer and Djokovic enjoy playing here at Dubai. Federer’s won this title five times and Djokovic has been champion four times, including just last year. They came into the match having played in Dubai twice before to a split decision: Federer won their quarterfinal outing in 2007, while Djokovic won their meeting in the 2011 final. Their individual records in Dubai: 41-5 for Federer, 30-4 for Djokovic.

Still, Dubai remains Federer's domain. He spends a lot of time living in the city, trains here often, and the fans who sometimes run into the Federer family in local restaurants were clearly in his corner in this matchup with their constant “Roger, Roger, Roger” chants. There’s nothing like having a stadium in your corner. There were Djokovic fans, of course, but Federer was the clear favorite, and that helped him find the winning side.
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They gathered together at the Australian Open, but since then the Big Four have been doing their own thing, from rehab to Davis Cup to vacation. They've also scattered in the rankings -- though Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic remain No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, Andy Murray has fallen to No. 6 and Roger Federer to No. 8. But they remain the most closely followed players in tennis, so here's a look at what they've been up to as they prepare to return to tournament play over the next week or two.

Rafael Nadal

After nearly a year without injury interruptions, Nadal again experienced physical problems at the Australian Open -- most significantly when his back acted up partway through the men's final against Stanislas Wawrinka. Though it severely hampered his play during much of the second and third sets, medical examinations later showed the problem was only a strain that would recover with a few days' rest.

Since then, the world No. 1 has also revealed how difficult he found the situation. "I knew I had no chance of winning, but I had no intention of retiring,” Nadal said to a Spanish radio station last week. “It was the worst hour and a half that I have spent on a tennis court," he said, adding that the loss had lingered longer than most.

Nadal resumed physical training last Tuesday and was scheduled to begin hitting again Thursday. Later that day, however, he announced that he was pulling out of this week's event in Buenos Aires because of a stomach virus. "It makes it impossible for me to arrive with the adequate preparation to compete in such an important and demanding tournament," he said in a video message.

He is still entered in the inaugural Rio event next week.

Though his start to this season has been disrupted, Nadal continues to receive accolades for his remarkable achievements last season, when he won two of the three Grand Slams he played, a record-tying five Masters events and reached the final in 14 of 17 tournaments. Those achievements saw Nadal awarded for sporting excellence at the annual Mundo Deportivo Gala, following similar recognition in 2007 and 2008. Last year, Nadal was voted the best Spanish athlete ever by readers of Spanish sporting newspaper Marca.

Roger Federer

Although Nadal has been making headlines for pulling out of a tournament, Federer caused an even bigger stir by making a surprise appearance in one. As usual, the 17-time Grand Slam champ had implied he would be skipping the first round of Davis Cup, having played at that stage only once since 2004. But a day before Switzerland was due to take on Serbia in the team competition, news broke had Federer would be joining his new fellow Grand Slam champ Wawrinka and the rest of the team for the contest. "Look who I found in Novi Sad ..." Wawrinka wrote on Twitter alongside a photo of him, Federer and team captain Severin Luthi shortly after Federer's participation had been made public.

Wawrinka had known in advance that Federer would be there, having been involved in the discussions during the days leading up to the tie. For most, however, it was a surprise. The story goes that at the airport, Serbia's team captain approached a recently arrived visitor and told him he looked remarkably like Roger Federer, only to discover that he was talking to the tennis legend himself.

It all culminated in Switzerland posting an easy win against the Serbs, who were missing Djokovic and their next two highest-ranked players. Federer then announced he would also take part in the quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan in April, strengthening the impression that he has fully committed to his country's Davis Cup campaign this year. His return, combined with the emergence of Wawrinka as a Grand Slam force, means the Swiss team is now a heavy favorite to lift the Cup for the first time.

After an exhilarating but exhausting month, Wawrinka pulled out of this week's event in Rotterdam with a leg injury, while Federer is scheduled to be back on court at Dubai in two weeks' time.

Novak Djokovic

Had Djokovic also been playing for the Serbs against Switzerland, it would have been a blockbuster tie. But like Federer, Djokovic had announced his intention to skip the tie, and unlike Federer, did not change his mind. It was an understandable decision. Even with Djokovic, the undermanned Serbs would have been underdogs, and he also took part in last year's November final when the team suffered a frustrating loss to the Czech Republic.

But he kept himself occupied in the meantime. After being upset in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open by Wawrinka, the Serb headed for the hills -- or rather, the mountains. An avid skier, Djokovic hit the slopes in southern Serbia after returning from Down Under, and judging from these photos, he had a lot more success than he did in Australia. The Serb also paid a visit to a childhood court, posting a picture that showed scattered marks on the walls from the days of the Belgrade bombings. And when a snowstorm hit northern Serbia, leaving cars stuck roadside, he delivered supplies to stranded passengers. All in a few days' vacation for the world No. 2.

It looks like he may have even bigger off-court plans for the rest of the year. Last week, Djokovic also appeared on a Serbian talk show, where he suggested he and fiancée Jelena Ristic may be getting married shortly. "Jelena, enjoy it while you can. In a couple of months you will be changing your last name to Djokovic," he said.

On court, Djokovic has resumed training in Monte Carlo with his longtime coach Marian Vajda. Boris Becker, who is now coaching Djokovic at tournaments, does not appear to be present. The Serb's next outing -- like Federer -- is expected to be in Dubai.

Andy Murray

Meanwhile, scratch the wedding announcement for Murray. The Scot offhandedly mentioned during a Twitter Q&A that he and longtime girlfriend Kim Sears would be getting married after Wimbledon, and then quickly had to clarify he had only been joking. Other questions Murray was asked included whether he ate the grass after winning Wimbledon last year (“No, I smoked it,” he replied) and how often he's wanted to kill Nadal and Federer (“It's a daily occurrence,” was the answer).

Later, he posted, "3 things ... I don't smoke grass, I'm not getting married (yet) and I don't want to kill Rafael Nadal."

The impromptu session had been in honor of Murray defeating Davis Cup teammate James Ward 8-1 in Pro Evo, the soccer video game for PlayStation. Clearly, Ward bounced back quickly from that humiliating defeat. In the Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and the U.S., then-world No. 175 Ward beat No. 45 Sam Querrey -- a victory that, along with Murray's two singles wins, secured Britain the tie. It also saved Murray from perhaps having to play doubles during the tie, a welcome respite for someone starting their return from back surgery at the beginning of this season.

Murray had also been worried about how his back would feel playing on clay so soon after Australian Open hard courts. But it must have held up well because soon after he added another tournament to his schedule by taking a wild card into this week's event in Rotterdam. His entry helped boost the tournament field following Wawrinka's withdrawal.

Murray is also scheduled to play two weeks later in Acapulco, which switches to hard courts beginning this year.

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.

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