Saturday, January 18, 2014

I See Shades of the Old Roger Returning

I am about to admit something I probably shouldn't to our wonderful "Outer Courts" readers. When it comes to Roger Federer, I am not an unbiased observer. Unlike in virtually every other match that we have watched since we began this journey with Tennis Channel, when Roger Federer plays, I have a distinct rooting interest (this is also true when Jack Sock plays, but that is actually to root against him, so I don't think that counts). I am an unabashed Federer fan and when he is on the court, I will most certainly be pulling for him with a rooting interest that has only been topped by four other sports entities in my lifetime (of course the Kentucky Wildcats, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Braves and the childhood agony of following the human heartbreak, Greg Norman). My reasons for liking Roger Federer are many, but they boil down to this. In addition to envying his elegance, fashion sense and hair, I find his brand of tennis to be the most visually satisfying of all that have ever played.  At his best, he does for me what even my other favorites like McEnroe, Edberg, Agassi and others could not. In his most elevated state, he makes tennis more beautiful to watch than any other player and it is that level of play, even more so than Roger the person, that I cheer to see.

However since we have been on the Outer Courts beat, this hasn't been the Federer that I have witnessed in person on the court. We have covered three tournaments live (Indian Wells, Cincinnati and the US Open) and in all of them, I have watched Federer lose, a couple of times rather painfully. While witnessing his match against Nadal from the front row on a cool summer evening in Cincinnati was transcendent (maybe the best Roger played all year and probably one of my three favorite sports experiences of all time), watching him lose to the mediocre Tommy Robredo in the intense August New York sun was extraordinarily difficult. As he shanked forehand after forehand with his new "modern" racket, shades of Willie Mays dropping fly balls in center field with the Mets passed through my mind and I wondered if the era of Federer should come to a close sooner rather than later. Would Roger go so long that we forget the "religious experience" Roger and instead only remember the end of the line struggles instead? That Robredo match stayed with me throughout the offseason and caused me to look upon 2014 with hesitance...which Roger would show up...the majestic version that makes the case to be the best tennis player alive, or the painful one that had looked incapable of staying on the same court with an aging Tommy Robredo?

Well if the first three matches of The Australian Open are any indication, the 2014 version of Roger looks a bit more like his usual self than what I witnessed at the end of last season. During his victory on a cool Saturday over Teymuraz Gabashvili (6-2, 6-2, 6-3), Federer gave us a number of promising signs that his play has improved and he is taking seriously the thought of re-establishing himself as a functioning member of the "Big Four." His backhand was brilliant as usual, but we also saw an improved forehand, one that Roger seems to have more confidence in and thus is willing to unleash with more aggression. Federer actually played more aggressive all the way around, showing a confidence in his return game that turned it away from his mere "chip it back" strategy that paid so few dividends last season, and instead going for winners on the crucial points. He broke Gabashvili five times, but more importantly played those points with aggression and confidence, something that he seemed to lack on crucial returns in 2013.

Last year at Indian Wells, I shared my encounter with Roger Federer (you may remember that we met him and had him on our UK basketball post game show) with a British journalist who was kind enough to actually speak to two young reporters from Kentucky. I said I was shocked that Federer would be so kind to a nobody blogger from the United States, and the journalist said that kindness was a central part of Roger as a person. But then he followed up by saying, "however on the court, Roger needs to go back to his warrior status. At his best, he knew he was better than everyone and he showed that confidence by being playing brilliantly and having an elegance on the court that no one else could emulate. I don't see that in him now and it needs to return so that we know Roger is back."

At the time I wasn't quite sure what my British friend meant. But after following Federer throughout 2013 and then watching him again in Melbourne, I can see the change he referred to last March. The Federer of last year looked like a nice player, but one that was trying to get by, rather than imposing his will on others. The Federer of Australia is different, gliding on the court like the old days and hitting winners that with an unadulterated confidence. While lacking some of the pace and precision, the on-court confidence is that of Roger Federer in his prime, and that makes him so much more fun to watch and cheer on to victory.

With that said, the road is about to get much rougher and some of this early excitement is sure to be abated. The path to success gets much more difficult beginning now as Federer hits a murderer's row that could include Tsonga, Murray, Nadal and then Djokovic. The probability of him even getting an opportunity to play all of those matches is slim and chances are high he will be dismissed within the next two rounds. But for the first time since I saw him last March at Indian Wells, the excitement of the possibility of a return of the old Federer, even sporadically, has returned. I see a Roger that believes again and thus I can't help but be excited about his 2014 prospects. While I still may not have his flowing locks, impeccable wardrobe or slicing backhand, Roger's versions of these are all back to their confident, elite status and maybe, just maybe, ready for another Grand Slam run somewhere down the line.