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Friday, April 17, 2009
Rog, take a break and clear your head


Roger Federer lost to Stanislas Wawrinka, his Olympic Games doubles partner, in Monte Carlo on Thursday -- in a tournament that Federer entered at the last moment, reversing his strategic decision to play fewer events on clay in 2009 than he had in previous years.

Notice that Rolex is the high-profile sponsor of the Monte Carlo tournament, and that Roger Federer is the most visible (and perhaps highest paid) of the company's athletic spokespersons. So keep in mind that Federer might have entered Monte Carlo at the 11th hour for no better reason than because the Rolex bigs pointed out that his participation would be … appropriate.

Nobody wants to think of the Mighty Fed as a pawn of "corporate greed heads," but "the Rolex defense" might be the most comforting explanation for what happened. That's certainly true for Federer die-hards who just took another sharp jab to the nose, courtesy of Wawrinka. If Federer showed up only because he was coerced into it, you can hardly blame him for playing a plug-ugly match (he presented Wawrinka with 14 break points, and even Wawrinka is good enough to cash in on some of them -- in this case, three). Maybe he just wanted to get out of Dodge.

Still, the Federer faithful keep having to adjust their expectations downward, and in so doing they invoke just about every excuse in the book to explain the ragged state of Federer's once seamless, shining game. It all goes back to the mono he suffered from before the 2008 Australian Open -- an illness we may not have heard a word about had he actually won that tournament.

On top of that, Roger's got a bad back that keeps him from being fully fit; it also prevents him from hitting his forehand the way he likes and is responsible for his poor first-serve conversion percentage (whether it accounts for him having lost the keys to the car, I don't know). And that's also why he hasn't been able to find and hire a coach in this time of obvious distress. Besides, what's a coach going to do for a guy who can't move?

OK, so let's play along with this. Federer's back is a mess; the guy can barely get out of bed in the morning. Rafael Nadal is in his head, Novak Djokovic is in his face, and Andy Murray is in his kitchen, stealing the silverware. What's a guy to do? The answer is obvious: Take some time off. Go get yourself healthy, clear your head, get rid of that tummy and return with a strong back, fire in your eyes and a good hate on for Nadal, Djokovic & Co.

Everything we've seen in recent weeks suggests that Federer needs a break, but he himself seems stuck in that indecisive mode glorified in song by The Clash: "Should I stay or should I go?" It's been downright cringe-inducing watching Federer these past few weeks. He has been inconsistent and impatient, alternately morose, indifferent and all but seething with ill-concealed discontent, and perhaps even bitterness. For that's Federer's way -- to pretend nothing is wrong, to keep his feelings to himself.

In some ways, those are admirable urges. But why should Federer suffer this way if things really are that bad, physically or mentally? Here's an interesting question: Given Nadal's demonstrated supremacy on clay, and the degree of pure grinding required to do well on the red dirt, does it really make sense for this beleaguered champion to keep plugging away (losing to a Wawrinka here, a Verdasco there), all for the privilege of getting waxed by Nadal three, two and one down the road at Roland Garros?

Nobody really knows the precise nature and extent of Federer's problems, but I do know this: If they're sufficiently serious, the best solution for him may be a break. And there's no better time to do that than during the clay-court season, so that he can return fresh at Wimbledon and build momentum toward the one tournament he still owns -- the U.S. Open.

Perhaps Federer should also contemplate this line from the aforementioned tune: "If I go there will be trouble, if I stay it will be double."