- Kamakshi Tandon
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While the rest of the big four hit the beaches, Roger Federer has been hitting the clay to play tournaments in Hamburg and Gstaad. Here's a look at what they've been up to since Wimbledon:
The big event was Federer's unveiling his new sweater vest, or rather his new racket, in Hamburg last week (though the former may have been the bigger social-media event).
Unlike the sweater vest, which has been in Federer's bag since early spring, the bigger, blacked-out racket was added only after his shocking second-round exit at Wimbledon. That meant less than three weeks of practice with the new stick before his first match in Hamburg, and it occasionally showed. In his third-round match against Jan Hajek, for example, Federer hit a number of forehands out by several feet.
He becomes the third member of the big four to use a new racket this season, following Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open and Rafael Nadal upon his return to the tour in February. Neither of the two skipped a beat, with Djokovic taking the title in Melbourne and Nadal winning seven tournaments since coming back. But Federer's switch represents a more drastic change.
At 98 square inches, the head of the new racket is significantly larger than the 90-square-inch Wilson Pro Staff he has wielded for more than a decade. Though its exact specifications have not been publicized, the new frame is expected to add power and be more forgiving on mis-hits but reduce some feel and precision. Wilson general manager Jon Muir told The Wall Street Journal that Federer is using a new model that is not currently available for sale, and further changes could still take place during this trial period.
The move quiets increasing calls for the 17-time Grand Slam champ to modernize his equipment from a racket that has long been the smallest among those used by the top pros and is notorious for a tiny sweet spot that demands high accuracy.
But the transition is not proving as rapid as Federer's previous change, from an 85-square-inch design to the 90-inch, which also took place in Hamburg -- in 2002, when he ended up winning the title for his first Masters Series victory. This time, he lost 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4) in the semifinals to up-and-coming Argentine Federico Delbonis. The loss was Federer's second straight to a player ranked outside the top 100 (the other was Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon). The 22-year-old Delbonis also became the youngest player to ever defeat Federer, breaking 23-year-old Kei Nishikori's mark set a few months ago in Madrid.
"I don't think it had much to do with the racket," Federer acknowledged after the match, but admitted, "I'm just still looking for the timing and rhythm."
The bigger concern may have been that his back appeared to be bothering him again; the area was taped and may have prompted some of the noticeably weak serves during the encounter. "It's been a difficult week throughout," said Federer, without elaborating.
Last week in Hamburg was also one of the rare tournaments where Federer's wife, Mirka, and their twin daughters were not accompanying him. He now heads back to his native Switzerland for the picturesque event in Gstaad for another run-through with the new racket, creaky back and all. Except for compatriot and second-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka, the field is relatively unthreatening, but the high altitude and quick conditions will be an adjustment.
Like the new racket, these two red clay events were unexpected post-Wimbledon additions. Shortly after his loss at the grass-court major, Federer emphasized the importance of not overreacting, but the resulting shake-up suggests he was troubled.
In an interview with a Swiss newspaper last week, he said he decided the day after the defeat that he needed more matches, first adding one tournament, then two. He did not watch Wimbledon following his exit, but did send Andy Murray a text message after his victory.
Speaking to reporters last week, Federer also said he had considered switching rackets in the past but going deep at Grand Slams left no room in his schedule to test and break in a new frame. But with room for other long breaks during the year and over the offseason, it again suggests the timing of the change was at least partly prompted by disquiet at his substandard results this season. He has dropped to fifth in the rankings, the lowest he's been in more than a decade.
Will the fixes work, or are there more changes ahead? At the very least, they indicates that the 31-year-old, contrary to some perceptions, is still interested in continuing to compete on tour.
There were concerns about a repeat of last year's long absence after his limping first-round loss at Wimbledon, but Nadal seems to be gearing up to return at the Masters Series in Montreal as planned. He resumed training last week and has made a hotel booking for the tournament, also saying to the Spanish press that he expects to play.
But he did not quite give his knee the all clear, going only so far as to describe it as "not bad."
"It is clear that I will be physically a little worse than some of my rivals, but I will try my best," said Nadal.
As usual, the hard courts are expected to provide the toughest challenge for Nadal's knees, so his progress will be carefully monitored. He did win Indian Wells in March, but three events in a row on the surface will now provide a better indication of the Spaniard's ability to withstand an extended pounding on the cement.
At least he can play without the pressure of defending tournaments and ranking points -- Nadal did not play after Wimbledon in 2012, so anything he does for the rest of this season will only add to his total, which is already enough to make him No. 4 in the world. And given that he leads the tour in points so far this year, the year-end No. 1 ranking is a real possibility if he can pick up where he left off before Wimbledon.
His early loss at Wimbledon did at least provide some extra rest after a grueling comeback schedule in which he has played 46 matches since returning. In typical fashion, Nadal has spent it hanging out at home in Mallorca and on various Spanish beaches.
A day after losing the Wimbledon final, Djokovic hosted a celebrity- and player-stocked gala in London that raised more than $1.4 million for his foundation. Since then, he seems to have been on a virtual tour of the Balkan region, with media spotting him in Serbia, on the Croatian coast and in Montenegro. The strangest sighting was the Serb driving a tractor while having poetry read to him -- but then again, there's never been any predicting of what Djokovic will do.
Murray chose the Bahamas for his getaway, going from grass-court tennis to beach tennis. Back home, Murray mania has continued, with postage stamps being issued to mark his historic Wimbledon victory and tennis clubs reporting swelling turnouts. Combined with successes in rugby, cricket and the Tour de France, Britain finds itself experiencing a golden summer of sport for the second year in a row. It's enough to leave even the famously scathing British tabloid headlines struggling for material. How about, "No pressure, Andy, but how will you top this?"
2dAnna Katherine Clemmons