It’s one of the great fallacies in sports: the belief that in a tournament, one day’s play is not just relevant, but definitive, in determining both expectations and outcomes in future rounds. This forms the basis for assessing Roger Federer’s chances at Wimbledon after his quarterfinal win over Mikhail Youzhny… and before his monster semifinal against Novak Djokovic.
Let’s step outside tennis for a bit: After Italy slogged past England in a labored, plodding Euro 2012 quarterfinal decided by penalty kicks, the conventional wisdom quickly kicked in: Germany would destroy Italy in the semifinals. Sure, the Germans had reason to be the clear favorite, but the Italians — unbeaten against the Germans in international tournaments since 1920 — were being written off prematurely by most pundits. A few wise souls reserved judgment, but the vast preponderance of public opinion said that the Germans would waltz past the Azzurri.
You don’t have to love international football to know what happened in the Euro 2012 semifinals: Italy, playing without pressure, withstood an early blitzkrieg, scored a goal near the 20-minute mark of the first half, and sank the Germans in a convincing 2-1 victory.
Here’s some advice about judging the form of tennis players and making all sorts of sports prognostications, an undeniable and generally fun part of being a sports fan (unless you’re a gambling addict): Make a prediction based on the inherent quality of the participants, a truly alarming development (a big injury; a psychological thunderbolt), or something specific to the matchup involved. Don’t make predictions (in relatively even sporting events) based on one or two previous matches if said matches are not representative of long-term trends.
Before going forward, let’s establish a few things: 1) I’m very often wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. Doots knows this, too. 2) Sports prognostications are not always reflections of sports knowledge — sports can be unpredictable at times. On some days, volatility and turbulence are part of the equation, and that’s what you get when you put flawed, imperfect, flesh-and-blood beings into an arena. You saw it with Lukas Rosol, you saw it with Sabine Lisicki, and you see it to some degree at just about any knockout tournament in any sport. Most of the time, favorites win, but on some occasions, underdogs have their day.
With that said, the following point needs to be established in tennis tournaments and tournaments of all kinds: Removing specific evidence from the mix, don’t let one day determine your outlook toward the next. Italy did not have to beat Germany when it played England. The Italians did not have to play their best game to advance on that day; they only had to be good enough. They needed their best for the Germans in the semifinals, and on THAT day, Italy delivered the goods.
Tournaments can and do change as they move along. Teams or individuals that are heavy favorites in early rounds can struggle under the burden of expectations, but if they escape those early rounds and advance to the latter stages of a tournament, they play more freely. Rafael Nadal has done this in many of his major-tournament victories. In professional basketball, the Miami Heat struggled to play their best basketball in the Eastern Conference portion of the recent NBA playoffs, but once they got to the Finals and reached that championship stage, they stopped playing with fear. Their veteran players relaxed, shot the ball with confidence, and flourished in ways that did not emerge in previous rounds of the postseason. Miami, an underdog heading into the NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, stormed past its befuddled foe in five quick games to win the championship.
All of this forms the framework for the Federer-Djokovic showdown, which marks the first time these two titans of the sport have met on a grass court.
Against Mikhail Youzhny, everything worked for Roger. Serve, groundstrokes, volleys, defense, movement, you name it. Federer was untroubled, and when Federer is untroubled, his full arsenal of shots emerges in all its aesthetic glory. The natural response is to wonder, “Why can’t Federer do this all the time?” A few voices in my Twitter feed said that Federer looked unbeatable against Youzhny.
Hey, fellow Fed fans, I’m elated Roger played this well. I’m thrilled about the 32nd major semifinal. I’m ecstatic about the pickup of at least 360 rankings points. I’m immensely relieved that Fed is back in a Wimbledon semifinal; it just seemed wrong for him to not play on the second Friday, a championship-level stage, each of the last two years. From a fan’s standpoint, this match was great to watch.
From an analyst’s perspective? That’s an entirely different story. Being an analyst requires an entirely different mentality compared to the world inhabited by a fan. Yes, I’m basically telling all y’all to brace for a loss this Friday to Djokovic. No, that’s not defeatism; it’s simply the product of cold, hard analysis.
Look — there’s clearly a path to victory for Federer here. Grass is not Djokovic’s favorite surface. Fed’s low slices and overall variety can have their greatest effect against Djokovic on grass. The surface is not as physically punishing, giving Federer a slightly improved chance (compared to hardcourts) of being able to endure a five-set match. Centre Court is Federer’s favorite court in the world. It’s certainly possible that he could serve big, whack the follow-up forehand (which will be just as important as his first serve on Friday), and generally play within a comfort zone against Djokovic. He certainly has a legitimate chance to win this match, and I won’t argue with predictions that favor Federer based on these claims. There’s certainly a convincing case to be made for Gramps in this match.
I think it’s important to establish one point before Friday: The question “Why can’t he do that all the time?” has a very simple answer - the opponent. We all wish that Federer had played Djokovic today, but that wasn’t the case.
Federer did not play a man who generates a lot of pace on his groundstrokes, especially the forehand. Federer did not play a man with a lethal, consistent serve. Federer did not play a man who tightens up his game and defends brilliantly on break points. Federer did not play a man who competes as well as he and Nadal do. Federer did not play an imposing returner who gets back many of his better serves.
You already know this, but it must be said nevertheless: Roger Federer needs cheap points on serve to win close matches at the majors. He needs points that end quickly, saving him not just wear and tear but the knowledge that he’ll have to engage in a 10-stroke rally to win a service point if he doesn’t hammer an ace or service winner. When Federer knows that his serve and his follow-up forehand will not be met with extreme depth or pace, he finds a comfort zone. His serves continue to hit targets. His forehand gets locked in. He cruises on serve and can then play return games more confidently. When Roger smells weakness in an opponent, he pounces. This is why he’s made such a vast fortune and achieved such unprecedented acclaim from playing tennis.
Djokovic — his opponent on Friday — and that fellow named Nadal give Federer a fight on just about every occasion these days because they do not allow Roger to find that comfort zone as a server. Djokovic’s return game and Nadal’s defensive game let Roger know that he’s simply not going to get a lot of cheap points unless he hits tons of PERFECT serves — to the corners of the service box with pace. Naturally, this awareness is not lost on Federer, but that’s often no help to him. The knowledge that he must serve well doesn’t matter to him against Djokovic or Nadal these days… unless, of course, Nadal and Djokovic gift him enough cheap points in the first set to feed him a fresh helping of confidence.
Here’s the most instructive way of summing up why Djokovic is likely to take away the things that enabled Federer to flourish against Youzhny: In 2007, Roger could acquire JesusFed mode on a regular basis. The idea that he could play at or close to his best level on a sustained basis was not preposterous. Through 2007, Federer wasn’t just the best player on the circuit; he displayed that superiority regularly. His body, just 25 to 26 years old at the time, was able to shoulder the burden. (Nadal is currently 26, Djokovic 25. It’s not a coincidence they’re thriving so much right now.)
That’s different today.
Federer’s best game is still better than Nadal’s best form or Djokovic’s best form, but Roger cannot remain in God Mode for particularly long stretches. His body is one month short of turning 31. In tennis, you just don’t get to remain dominant throughout a calendar year. Djokovic’s 2012 has not been as good as 2011, so he knows a thing or two about sustaining quality in his own right. With that said, Djokovic has a clear advantage in being almost six years younger than Federer. If a match goes deep into a fourth set or into a fifth set, the Serbian star will simply have more reserves to call upon. This is why Roger has a much smaller margin for error than Djokovic does.
You can expect some brief patches of excellence from Federer on Friday. He’ll have to make this match a serving and shotmaking contest, not a grueling baseline duel. He will need to lean on his serve, but if the Djokovic return — the best in the business — is on, Federer will be naked on the court. He’ll know he’ll have to go for a lot more on his groundstrokes, but taking risks is the challenge facing an underdog, not a favorite. It’s not as sustainable an approach… one he might have to take, yes, but unsustainable in the end.
Why can’t Roger Federer play supremely well all the time? In tennis, the opponent shapes the two-way conversation. Federer can’t just make statements on his own; he’ll need a few timely errors from Djokovic if he’s going to win this match. His back might be healthy again, but if this match goes five sets, would you really fancy Federer’s chances?
This is Djokovic’s match to lose. I say that most assuredly not as a fan, but as an analyst.
The analyst’s job, after all, is — like Federer in a press conference — to call it as he sees it.
#HUGS of support and solidarity to the global #FedFanFamily in advance of Friday’s blockbuster. Please, do not be devastated if the favorite defeats the underdog. More importantly, don’t be upset with Roger if he proves unable to play against Djokovic the way he did against Youzhny.
As this commentary has tried to show, there’s a very good reason why one day’s performance against one kind of opponent doesn’t carry over to the next.