Relax Federer faithful, it's only March
Disappearing forehand. Waning confidence. Match deprivation. For Roger Federer, it all adds up to early-season doom and gloom. But fear not, the world No. 1 has been mired in frosty streaks in the past, and a return to top form is just around the corner.
Still worried? That's reasonable enough. Federer looked flat in Australia, understandable considering the food poisoning he had before the tournament began. It was also recently revealed the Swiss had mononucleosis -- unbeknownst to him at the time -- Down Under. However, before he played Murray, he said he was fit and eager to play. He seemed ready to make a statement, that statement being, "I'm Roger Federer, and you are not." He had to have been confident despite not playing in five weeks, since he had won in Dubai in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007 -- and lost in the final in 2006.
This would be his first appearance since losing to Novak Djokovic, the man most people peg as the next No. 1 player in the world (the confident Djokovic is no doubt one of those people). It was the Swiss' first chance to remind his rivals who runs the tour. Instead, Murray was only reminded that Federer's forehand occasionally disappears for games at a time.
Perhaps you're not worried about the Murray match, but something else? You're concerned that Federer has a long year ahead of him. He's scheduled to play more tournaments than usual, plus the Olympic Games in Beijing. He also has more good players to contend with than at any other point in his career. In four years as the No. 1 player in the world, Federer hasn't had to overcome a lot of obstacles at one time. He's had no season-ending injuries, no personal tragedies and no consistent threats on the tour other than Rafael Nadal on clay and, the past two years, Nadal at Wimbledon.
In the next two years, he'll face adversity, in the form of Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and maybe, just maybe, a player like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, wherever he goes. He'll have to worry more about injury as he ages. He'll have to worry about losing motivation or confidence if he loses a few more matches. He'll have to deal with the pressure of being two major titles away from Pete Sampras' record of 14 -- so close, but still quite far away considering how abruptly a dominant tennis career can end (a 25-year-old John McEnroe won two majors in 1984 but couldn't win another one in his final eight years on the tour).
Federer has a lot on his mind, and a lot left to accomplish, but there's no cause for worry. In tennis, confidence comes and goes quickly. Remember how things looked in November? Federer dominated his last three matches at the Masters Cup and Djokovic ended the year with five consecutive losses and seemed destined for a slump in 2008.
There was a lot to dislike about the way Federer played against Murray. He returned terribly (he didn't win a single point against Murray's first serve in the third set, 0-for-14) and he sprayed a lot of forehands. He was aced 10 times -- a credit to Murray but rare against Federer (Andy Roddick usually won't ace Federer that often in three sets).Still, there was a lot to like, too. Federer frequently attacked the net, as he did in Shanghai last year. He served well in the first and third sets. He seemed to move well, which wasn't the case by the end of the Australian Open. Why doubt that he'll return to the form he had just a few months ago? He's had cold streaks before and come out of them just fine. Remember Guillermo Canas and Filippo Volandri? Canas beat Federer twice last year and Volandri beat him once. By the end of 2007, did those losses mean anything at all?
While the early loss in Dubai deprived Federer of a few useful warm-up matches leading up to Indian Wells, it might also help him. He can now fly to the United States sooner than he might have planned for the Sampras exhibition next week. Last year, Federer lost his first match at Indian Wells, in the second round, after winning it the previous three seasons. He stands to gain a lot of ranking points if he does well. He could gain a few more in Miami, where he lost in the fourth round. If he wins both tournaments and performs well at Estoril, Portugal, where he didn't play last year, he'll have a cushion over Nadal in the rankings that the Spaniard won't be able to top without a Federer flop at Roland Garros or Wimbledon, or a sensational hard-court season from Nadal (which has yet to happen). Djokovic has a lot of points to defend in the coming weeks, too, and he's still 1,300 points behind Federer.
If Sampras double-bagels Federer at their exhibition Monday night, maybe then Federer fans will have something to worry about. Otherwise, remember that it's only March. You might end up remembering this season as the best of Federer's career.
Tom Perrotta is a senior editor at Tennis Magazine.