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Monday, February 2, 2009
Was Oz Federer's last stand?

It's not a good day to be Roger Federer. The immediate reason is the result of the Australian Open final, which he lost in five sets to Rafael Nadal. As anyone reading this must already know, Federer on Sunday morning stood poised to equal Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles; by the time the clock struck midnight (the evening final stretched into Monday in Australia), he was a man left standing by helplessly as his empire crumbled before his eyes.

That sounds awfully dramatic, and let's not forget that, at 27, Federer still has numerous chances, as well as the game, to surpass Sampras. After all, on a day when Federer was deserted for long stretches by his serve and played with a passivity that was mortifying (but not irreversible, like a lousy backhand), he still managed to push the top-ranked player in the world to five sets, and forced Nadal to play his most electrifying tennis.

But the main takeaway here is that Nadal continues to mature, build confidence and grow ever more lethal on surfaces other than his native red clay. He now has won his last three Grand Slam-event encounters with Federer, one on each of the game's three major surfaces: clay (Roland Garros), grass (Wimbledon) and hard court (the Australian Open). He has inserted himself deep into Federer's psyche, and it's unlikely that he'll be easily dislodged.

Hard courts were Federer's last port of refuge, as well as being No. 3 on Nadal's world conquest to-do list. The majority of the ATP tournaments and two of the four majors are played on hard courts, and as long as Federer remained the dominant force in them, he had a great hedge against being overshadowed. Oh sure, Nadal had surpassed Federer to take the No. 1 ranking. But these days (thanks partly to Serena Williams), the cachet of being ranked No. 1 on a week-to-week basis has been diminished, even if the year-end No. 1 ranking still retains its prestige.

On a more practical and Federer-centric level, as long as Fed remained the master of hard courts (especially in his own mind), he could count on two opportunities every year to continue his advance on Sampras' record -- or a solid six or eight chances while he's still near the peak of his abilities (Sampras himself was 31 when he won his last major, on hard courts at the U.S. Open).

Now, Federer can't rest nearly as secure about this home-surface advantage. And it isn't just Nadal he has to worry about. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga all have turned in their best results on hard courts.

Combined with Nadal's absolute mastery of Federer at Roland Garros, this developing logjam at the top suggests that grass might be the surface where Federer can add those last two, precious major titles to his résumé, and you all know the problem with that (even if you ignore Nadal's win in July): Wimbledon is the only grass-court major, and it's still the tournament where a guy with a huge serve and a passable volley can be an upset-maker.

I've felt for some years now that Federer's resistance to forming a strong bond with a coach might be a significant blind spot in his makeup. His critics can chalk up the beleaguered champ's attitude to arrogance, and maybe there's some truth in that. But now, perhaps more than ever, it seems Federer can really use the help of a coach, preferably one with good abilities on the mental and emotional fronts.

It takes more than one man to save a crumbling empire.