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Friday, October 10, 2008
Federer has big decision to make this season


I've been flooded with e-mails and text messages ever since Roger Federer pulled out of Stockholm, with fans wanting to know, "What's up with Roger Federer? Will he or won't he show up in Paris and Shanghai, for the year-end Tennis Masters Cup?"

Although he is playing Madrid, I can't answer that and sure hope that The Mighty Fed doesn't tell us before you read this. I think he's probably doing a lot of soul-searching and option-weighing as he relaxes and works on his game and fitness in Dubai. Should he, or shouldn't he, pull the plug on the season?

There's almost no chance that Federer can reclaim the world No. 1 ranking for the year. If there were, you can bet he'd be playing the final events of the year. But for Federer to nose ahead of Rafael Nadal in the year-end rankings, he will not only have to run the table for the rest of the year, he also needs for Nadal to have nothing less than an abysmal fall. In short, his destiny isn't in his own hands in any meaningful sense.

The sentimentalist in me would like to see TMF make the Herculean push in an effort to catch and edge out Nadal by Dec. 31, because I still remember the epic effort Pete Sampras put into his year-end run in 1998 -- a death march that enabled him to hold off the challenge of Marcelo Rios and finish No. 1 for a record sixth straight time. The quality of that record is obvious: A player basically has one chance in his career to finish No. 1 six or more straight years.

But the realist in me says Federer has been the year-end No. 1 for only four straight years, one fewer than Sampras had been on top in the fall of '98. So even if he overtakes Nadal, he's looking at having to finish No. 1 again in 2009 just to tie Sampras. I don't think Federer wants to (or should) look that far ahead as he plans the final stage of his career.

If Federer declines to chase the year-end top ranking, it will take a lot of pressure off Nadal. And the idea of Nadal playing for the next month with house money is bad news for his rivals. It will also allow Nadal to accumulate a bigger lead over Federer in the year-end points table (where Nadal has traditionally been far less productive than in the spring and summer), leaving him in great shape going into '09.

Depending on what Federer does, as well as how he does, he might even finish '08 ranked behind Novak Djokovic. That would be a psychological blow, but Federer has a strong mind.

The talking points issued by his camp have been that his glitches and hiccups this year reflected his insufficient recovery from glandular fever. The subtext is that if he does choose to bail, or mail it in after Madrid, he'll be able to embark on 2009 -- and the final push to capture the all-time Grand Slam singles title record -- refreshed and in full health.

That's a big gamble, of course. Federer is going to be losing buckets of rankings points if he calls it a year prematurely. But it's not as big a gamble as making a final push to reclaim the top ranking.