Proving he’s still willing to leave no stone unturned in his quest to remain a Grand Slam champion, Roger Federer has abandoned the racket with which he’s done all the damage in his career. That racket had a 90-square-inch head area, while his new one (also by manufacturer Wilson) has 98 square inches of hitting surface.
That’s about an 8 percent increase; a significant one for someone as intimately acquainted with his equipment as a top pro. (Who else can, or can afford to, have any one of his eight rackets restrung after using it for just a portion of one match?) Imagine an Olympic skier having to adjust to 8 percent of length in his staves, or Tom Brady throwing a football 8 percent larger than the official NFL pill.
It’s still too early to tell how this experiment will work out. Give Federer props for his pride, but also for his humility in deciding that the same-old same-old, the habits that have enabled him to collect 17 Grand Slam titles, are no longer adequate. He’s almost 32 and down to No. 5 in the rankings now, but the switch suggests he hasn’t run the white flag up the mast just yet.
"I’m just still looking for the timing and the rhythm here," Federer said after his second win with the new frame on Hamburg’s red clay. "Clearly it [the racket] reacts better to some shots. But it's important not to think of it the whole time, not to talk about it all the time, but more just sort of go with it, fight for every point, have the right mindset, be optimistic about playing here now and wanting to achieve a good result, and that’s what I'm doing.”
The result Thursday was intriguing. Federer won in straight sets in just 72 minutes over qualifier Jan Hajek. But Federer squandered a whopping 10 of 13 break points, including five match points. And it’s not like Hajek was swinging for the fences and landing bombs to fight his way out of those jams.
Federer played some puzzlingly tight, unfocused tennis on many of those points. That can suggest many things, but equipment failure is not one of them. Such unexpected lapses of determination are part and parcel of Federer’s game these days. He just doesn’t attack break points with the relish and confidence of a young warrior. In the course of a career, many great players take a long journey from desperately wanting it (success) to quietly wanting it -- to searching for the motivation to keep the wolf of retirement and all it implies at bay.
However, given how fresh this racket experiment is, it’s possible that whatever Federer lacked on many of those big points could at least partly be blamed on insufficient (if growing) confidence in his new stick.
The one thing that struck me is that this new racket really does seem to make a difference. It seemed to magnify all of Federer’s traits as player. His slice appeared to have significantly more and nastier bite. The extra power came in handy when Federer had to fight his way back to neutral from a distressed, defensive position. Those forehand shanks were more stupendous than ever before, and the backhand down the line seemed to come off the racket with more pop than ever.
In fact, I found myself wondering whether the racket could really be playing as differently as it appeared. Maybe it was less about Federer using a new frame than it was about me watching with new, critical eyes. Either way, this change is a pretty big deal simply because everyone -- including Federer’s rivals -- also will be apt to watch and wonder anew.
Federer has hit the “reset” button all right, probably for the last time in his career. But keep in mind that however the experiment works out, there are a lot of guys out there playing with 98s. Federer’s last battles will be fought in the heart, mind and legs, but it never hurts to be swinging Excalibur.