Commentary

Much at stake for Roger Federer

Originally Published: May 6, 2013
By Peter Bodo | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Thomas Starke/Bongarts/Getty ImagesThe new headband-less look should be the least of Roger Federer's worries at this point.

The big news out of Halle so far this week is that Roger Federer played a match without the trademark headband he has worn without respite for, by his own estimate, 12 or 13 years. It has been that kind of week, despite the shift from red clay to green grass at Halle (where Federer is playing) and Queens.

The week after a Grand Slam is always a tough news week.

The decision was not without angst, as you can tell by the fact that Federer dispensed with the headband only for a doubles match (which he and partner Tommy Haas promptly lost). "[There's] not so much sweating going on in the doubles," Federer explained. "So I figured I'm going to leave the headband in the bag."

Federer revealed that he almost -- almost! -- went without the headgear for a singles match in Rome, explaining: "I have been practicing tons without it. I wanted to actually do it in Rome and then my team sort of backtracked at the last moment." Who knew that Paul Annacone, a little thin on top himself, had such sweeping powers?

The reason for all this hemming and hawing about the headband is that Federer cut his hair short this spring, diminishing the need to keep his chestnut-colored locks from whipping him across the eyes and ears while he played. But old habits die hard, and tennis players can be pretty superstitious; Federer has done pretty well wearing that headband -- 17 Grand Slam titles worth. But you all are familiar with the tale of Samson, aren't you?

This may not be the best time for Federer to tinker with his formula for success, even if the damage is already done when it comes to the length of his hair. He hasn't won a tournament since last August (the Cincinnati Masters 1000), and he was upset in the recent French Open (short cut, headband and all) by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Federer seems to be testing the allegedly direct relationship between playing events and holding a high ranking this year. He has played only seven events before this week, yet there he sits, safely perched at No. 3. It makes you wonder, and it didn't help clarify things when David Ferrer lost to Rafael Nadal in the French Open final a few days ago and promptly moved up to No. 4 while Nadal fell to No. 5.

If you study hard enough on it, you will see how the ranking system does make a lot of sense, despite such anomalies.

And that brings us right back to Federer's quandary. A finalist at Halle last year (he was upset by Haas), he's protecting a boatload of points this week and over the next three in London -- a grand total 2,150, to be exact. If he fails to equal his performances of last year at Halle and Wimbledon, he could fall as low as No. 6. Fifth-ranked Rafael Nadal is only 755 ranking points behind Federer, and defending all of 90 points.

In other words, the next month in Federer's life could have an enormous impact on the beloved all-time Grand Slam champion's future. His reduced schedule makes a lot of sense, given that he's pushing 32 years of age. But unless he produces in the events he does play, he could fall fast and hard this summer.

It would be silly to expect him to add more tournaments in the interest of chasing a higher ranking; the reality is that he's not in contention for the top spot and probably cares only about putting himself in position to contend at majors. But by falling to No. 6 or lower, he won't have the automatic protection accorded the top four seeds.

Given all this, you can see how wearing a headband might be a good idea. As John McEnroe can tell you, albeit for different reasons than those that apply to Federer, that band of cloth can keep your head from exploding.

Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for more than 30 years, most of them with TENNIS.com and TENNIS Magazine, where he is a senior editor and author of the popular blog, Peter Bodo's TennisWorld. A two-time WTA writer of the year, Bodo has also written numerous books, including Tennis For Dummies (with U.S. Davis Cup captain, Patrick McEnroe).