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Friday, August 22, 2008
Admit there's a problem, Federer

On the eve of the U.S. Open, hopes are running high in New York for a rematch of the epic Wimbledon final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, but recent events suggest that it probably won't happen. For one thing, only one player of the 10 sampled by Greg Sharko, the ATP's stat guru, won the first Grand Slam event he played after first assuming the top ranking.

Then there's this matter of Federer's slump. Since Wimbledon, he's compiled a lackluster record of 4-3 with no tournament wins. Last year, over that same span, The Mighty Fed went 9-1. Combined with his heartbreaking loss to Nadal at Wimbledon -- not to mention the thumping Nadal gave him just weeks earlier in the French Open final -- these numbers suggest that Federer is in the midst of his first genuine career crisis since he assumed the No. 1 ranking way back in February of 2004.

Federer will be gunning for his fifth straight U.S. Open championship and it's understandable that his fans believe he may make a glorious last stand on what might be called his own turf. But it's more likely that, at this point, he's thinking less about reasserting his authority in a glorious Grand-Slam season-ending statement than about figuring out what he needs to do to regroup and regain the No. 1 ranking next year. To that end, here's what I think Federer will need to do to succeed:

1. Admit he has a "problem." Veterans of various 10-step sobriety groups will tell you that the first step toward recovery is admitting that you have a problem. Many of them also will say they had to hit rock bottom before they can start back up toward the light again. Denial only prolongs the agony. TMF is such a talented player that he's pretty close to rock bottom now. If he loses to anyone not named Nadal or Novak Djokovic, his downward spiral will be both complete and oddly symmetrical, enabling Federer to trot out that old line uttered my Martina Navratilova: "If this year were a fish, I'd throw it back."

2. Make changes in his schedule. Federer already has the record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1, but he's almost out of the hunt when it comes to breaking an even more significant landmark: Pete Sampras' record of six consecutive years at No. 1. That's a record a player gets to crack just once in a career, for obvious longevity-related reasons.

Federer, at 27, still has plenty of time to break Pete Sampras' Grand Slam singles titles record (he's currently three majors shy of it), and the wisest thing he could do is focus on creating the conditions that will enable him to play his best at the majors -- even if it means reviewing his commitments. To that end, I wish the ATP would come up with some sort of official exemption system to make it easier for veteran players who have won multiple slams to extend their careers.

3. Hire a coach. Federer needs someone other than his ever-faithful squeeze Mirka or his business associates to provide technical and emotional support. I know, I know, he's a guy who likes to fly solo. Now that he's hit turbulence and crashed into the mountain, though, he may reconsider the advantages of having an experienced co-pilot on board. We saw the difference a productive coaching relationship made in the careers of Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras (among others). If nothing else, hiring a coach would make TMF feel as if he's added another weapon to his repertoire.

And as any field general will tell you, there's no such thing as having too many weapons.