Why Can’t He Do That All The Time?


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.

However…

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.

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21 responses to “Why Can’t He Do That All The Time?”

  1. mattzemek says :

    This is unusual, but I’ll leave a quick, pre-emptive comment: I wrote this post because the expectations and hopes are through the roof for this match. I think that a Federer loss — if it does happen — will be met with a level of despondency and heartbreak too big for a lot of Fed fans to bear. I’m telling you, don’t feel that way………… unless Fed blows a match point. Yes, then I’ll join Doots and everyone else in Fedlandia in losing my shiznit and dissolving into a puddle of tears. ;-)

    Again, don’t be heartbroken. Fed needs to be 100 percent healthy; he might be only 85 to 90 right now. Had Fed been 100 percent healthy without any back flare-ups, one could place more of a psychological investment/expectation in Friday’s match. The Malisse match means Federer is once again reduced to the role of clear underdog, which means he’s playing with house money.

    Okay, that’s my quick comment. You may now pelt me with rotten tomatoes! ;-)

  2. Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

    Good post Matt – you definitely bring reality back to the conversation.

    Take a look at the comments I made here on Jonathan’s blog:

    http://www.perfect-tennis.co.uk/sublime-federer-defeats-youzhny-at-wimbledon/

    Without a doubt, it will be a very tough match, and Roger will need to call upon his mental toughness to get him through it. I think the main factor of the outcome of the match could be determination, and I have no doubt that Roger wants it more than Djokovic. Of course Nole is the favourite as he should be, but in the end, we really don’t know what the grass match-up will be like. We can only speculate.

    I choose to speculate that Roger’s grass game will thrive against Novak’s grass game, based off visuals that I have seen throughout my time watching both of them play on grass. Grass still rewards variety greatly, and we know Fed has that, certainly more than Djokovic. Roger both attacks and defends better on grass than any other surface, especially with the slice. I am not worried about his serve because that has been clicking the entire tournament, and I suspect it won’t falter now unless Djokovic returns out of his mind. (Even if he does, I’ve seen Roger half volley from the baseline better than I’ve seen him do it in years.) The crowd will likely pull for Roger too, which can help the psyche.

    Of course I am a Fed fan and I really, really want Roger to have his moment and win the match and the title. But I honestly believe Fed may have distinct advantages over Nole that he does not have on other surfaces. If he remains healthy (and he was tracking down balls like a 20 year-old vs Youzhny – no back issues to speak of), I believe he can win, without any doubt in my mind. I have seen Roger pull off the seemingly impossible so many times and with everything on the line, he will give it his all. And his “all” is certainly good enough to beat Djokovic on grass, considering how close nearly all of their matches have been on other courts.

    K.y.l.e.

    • mattzemek says :

      Kyle,

      All of your points are excellent ones. I reiterate that there’s clearly a path to victory for Roger in this match; he has an entirely legitimate chance to win.

      Three brief remarks about your comments:

      1) Djokovic will not be eclipsed by anyone in terms of desire. Djokovic’s desires are ravenous. Fed wants this a ton, but Djokovic won’t want it any less than he does.

      2) Determination is secondary to concentration in general, but especially on grass. Concentration wins grass-court matches, because break points are precious commodities, far more than on clay. Grass is a surface for shotmaking and execution, specifically bim-bam one-two combinations (serve and forehand, usually). This will be a matter of execution for Roger. Pinpoint placement, taking the ball early, prying open angles, spinning the ball so that it skids low off the grass and denies Djokovic the (high, comfortable) strike zone he enjoys on clay and hardcourts. In set one, set three, or set five, Federer must shorten points by hitting his targets. It’s an execution-and-concentration match from start to finish.

      3) Federer’s movement was great against Youzhny because Youzhny very, very rarely hit hard, flat shots with a maximum of pace. Youzhny hit at 3/4 pace throughout the match. Some of Fed’s more spectacular defensive points — which were undeniably pretty — were nevertheless the products of half-speed volleys that Youzhny failed to hit with force.

      • Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

        1) Overall, I would say yes, but in this particular match, motivation and determination weigh on Roger’s side I think. He has openly stated that he wants the title for about a year now. And correspondingly, he has played as such – with sharp play that has showed his focus, and mental toughness that has showed his heart.

        2) I do agree. Concentration is a vital part of the game on grass, and unlike RG, we have seen that concentration from Roger (and Nole). It may simply come down to one or two points in each set, and in that case, Roger’s tactics vs Nole in serving and groundstroke placement will play a huge part.

        3) Djokovic has struggled to hit the way he would like against Roger before, and it may well happen again if Roger can use the variety I mentioned. That’s the biggest killer for Djokovic, variety. When Roger uses it, Nole cannot get into the zone.

        And Youzhny moved quite well himself – got a lot of balls on his racket even if he didn’t get them back into play. Roger only hit 25 winners, which is small compared to the 1R and 2R matches that featured roughly the same scoreline. To me, it would have been hard to hit winners against Fed whoever was playing him, because he was moving and anticipating so well.

        No doubt Djokovic will be the favourite and there is a great chance of him winning. But I (and many others) see that Roger’s chances are considerably greater than it was at the FO where he never had “it.” A poor Fed managed to get a break lead in the first set and a double break + break lead in the second set in that one, so logic would dictate that he would have a much better chance of sustaining that play on grass with the knowledge of what he has to do to win.

        Alas, whatever happens, it’ll be a great match. At least that much we know.

  3. marcoiac says :

    Totally agree. Fed lost four of last five GS SF against Nole. Let’s not be delusional. He can’t be the favorite. Can he win? Of course he can. How LIKELY it is that he wins? Not very likely. If someone with a gun forced me to bet my house on Fedole, I’d definitely bet it on Nole. Luckily I don’t see anybody with a gun around here :)

    • dootsiez says :

      BANG BANG BANG!!!!!!!! *blows out gun fumes*

      • marcoiac says :

        Ouch! I forgot Julie the gunslinger…..Fatal forgetfulness…..

        I think we are all saying the same things, just placing the emphasis on different aspects of the upcoming Fedole (with the notable exception of Steve’s comment, on the faith-based nature of fandom and relationships, which I agree with).

        One thing surprises me though in these comments. It sounds like Fed loss at RG seemed expected. I am not sure this is not post hoc rationalization to come to terms with a bad loss. I certainly did not expect him to lose THAT bad. I don’t think clay is Nole’s favorite surface, and Fed has played very well on clay over the years. So, while my expectations for the RG SF Fedole weren’t high, they weren’t much lower than tomorrow’s. I think that Fedole is determined more by how the players execute their game plan than by the surface on which the match is played.

        I haven’t looked in detail into the Fedole H2H, but if Kyle is correct (no reason to think he is not), and Nole is ahead on both clay and hard courts, then there is an interesting consideration to make here. Given that tomorrow’s match is the first grass encounter and Fed is still up 14-12 in H2H with Nole, that means that the indoor H2H is overwhelmingly in Fed’s favor. Which makes me think that perhaps some good London rain may help our beloved player, making the match an indoor match.

        • Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

          On clay, Nole leads 3-3. On hardcourts, Fed leads 11-9, but Nole was taken 5 of their last 7 matches on it. Indoors, Roger leads 2-1.

          I think the biggest thing about RG was that Fed never looked good even though he made it through to the semis. And even in that match, he was up a break in the first and a double break and separate break in the second set – so it was not like he got demolished, but he couldn’t keep his level of play up (just as he couldn’t the entire tournament).

  4. Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

    I’ll put it this way – Roger was not the favourite at the French Open last year and look how focused he was. Even with the 6 titles to Nole’s 1, he can’t be the favourite. But that does not really matter to Roger. To say that he has less of a chance because of past results is hogwash because in the end, this match is unique to all of the other matches that they have played at Grand Slam level.

    The only time when Roger had more riding on the line I think was the USO2007 and USO2008 matches, and maybe even the FO2011 match (to prove to himself he could take out the undefeated Djokovic).

  5. dootsiez says :

    Why why Monsieur Zemek always does a fab job at lowering expectations so that Wogie can exceed them! :D

    Agree with analysis re Fed’s form against Youzhny not indicative of his performance against Djokovic. Different day, different opponent, different ball game.

    That said, I expect the odds to be tipped more in favour of Federer at Wimbledon than at any other slams, and Federer being Federer on any surface but particularly on grass, I think it’s closer to 50/50 than you gloomy lot make it sound.

    Onwards and upwards. I can smell a No 1 spot on the horizon.

  6. steve says :

    Lowering expectations in order to avoid the heartbreak of loss is the coward’s way out. You might as well say “I’m going to be careful not to get too attached to my girlfriend, just so I won’t be too sad if we break up.”

    True fans eagerly plunge into every situation, no matter how hopeless, with sky-high, over-the-rainbow expectations for their favorite, with the unshakable belief that he will not merely endure, but prevail. Even as the peal of doom sounds and the abyss yawns, they remain blithely certain that their beloved will somehow mount a miraculous escape. Somehow.

    And true fans take pride in wallowing in the slough of utter despond for days after their favorite loses. How else are you going to know you’re alive?

    ‘Sides, at the end of the day it’s just a couple multi-millionaires swatting a fuzzy little yellow ball around while running around on a lawn for two or three hours. 16 shiny pieces of tin, 17 shiny pieces of tin, what’s the diff?

    But I want you to get that 17th piece of tin, Roger. I WANT YOU TO GET IT.

    • theladyofshalott says :

      Here here. We can all read the stats, I know I wasn’t born yesterday. I thought it was quite obvious that Fed would not win against Djokovic in this year’s RG semi based on his form there, but I think this match is a better shot for him. I’d prefer to believe Fed has a shot of winning here than writing him off completely, because this draw is probably as good as any he is likely to get in the future. If fans end up disappointed in the end, well that’s just sport.

  7. druckb says :

    Hi Guys,

    N00b on this blog, and glad I found it. Agree with a lot of what’s written, but can’t help wonder how different this analysis would have been if Fed had held one of his match points last September – he got both first serves in, as we all no doubt recall. When the margins are *that* fine, it’s tough to call either of them an underdog, no? At RG, I’ll buy it – but on here? I think the matchup is as even as it can possibly be.

  8. pban says :

    Too emotionally invested in this to make any logical analytical assessment.Right now I am just a rabid fan alternating between total despair and building castles in the air

  9. Ramesh Prabhu (@zbrain) says :

    No question, Roger will need to do a whole lot of things better than he did against Youzhny. Just like you and everyone else has pointed out, the serve will be the biggest key for this match. And, he will need to bring out just about every club in his bag early in the match, and put away the ones that don’t work. All great analysis!

    However, what doesn’t show up in “cold, hard analysis” is the heart, the will and the great attitude of a champion. Sure he may have lost a couple of heartbreakers to Novak in recent times, but if it weren’t for Roger’s ability to brush off these tough defeats learn from them, he wouldn’t be where he is in tennis’ great history.

    Roger, in 2006, had endured a few rough defeats at the hands of his nemesis, Rafael Nadal. When both made it to the finals of Wimbledon that year, I clearly remember almost everyone – analyst, fan, hater – picked Rafa, although they had never ever met on the grass.

    Just about the only time I’ve heard Robert Federer defend his son… “You don’t think Roger can win this? You’ll be surprised how strong his will is.” We all know how the first set and the rest of that match went.

    My point is you don’t know what you don’t know. Like Kyle points out, they’ve never met on grass, a surface that really helps Roger’s game! That knowledge alone will give him the confidence that he can beat Novak, despite the aforementioned last few losses.

    In short, as a fan I do know the monumentality of the task at hand, and yes, I will brace for a tough loss, but I will not be surprised if Roger pulls it off. In fact, I am counting on it!

  10. marcoiac says :

    Kyle, you say: “On clay, Nole leads 3-3. On hardcourts, Fed leads 11-9, but Nole was taken 5 of their last 7 matches on it. Indoors, Roger leads 2-1.” The clay numbers are obviously not right. If my memory is correct, Fed is up 14-12 overall in H2H with Nole. if that’s correct, could it be that the count is 11-9 HC, 2-1 indoor, 1-2 clay? These numbers would sum up to 14-12. Anyway, the numbers clearly show that surface isn’t such a determinant factor in Fedole as it is in Fedal (where the clay record is overwhelmingly for Rafa, and the other records are all for Fed, even though not as overwhelmingly as clay is for Rafa). But who knows, maybe grass is different and one player dominates the other. I doubt it, but the lack of previous matches on grass makes it possible that Fedole on grass favors one of the two dudes. If that’s the case (though unlikely), I’d say it’s most likely that Fed dominates on grass. I don’t see anybody dominating Fed on grass. Wow, that was some convoluted thinking. They better start playing!!!! :)

  11. jandemom says :

    OK, Roger, it is time to throw all logic & recent results out the window & prove Matt the analyst wrong. I’m sure he won’t mind! Please be healthy & play to the best of your amazing ability – your fans will be cheering you on from all over the world. And good luck, too!

    Thanks, Matt, for all your recent Fence posts; haven’t had time to make intelligent comments but I always enjoy reading your contributions.

  12. genius says :

    Federer has no problem with Djokovic like I suggested. What was the point of this stupid fukin article. 6 wimbledons is why Federer should have been favorite. All your petty reasons why Novak should win were bullshit. Its Roger Federer dumbass!

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