Roger Federer. The Man. The Legend.
He has achieved almost every conceivable accolade that the Tennis world has to offer. What could there be left for him to fight for? Apparently there is yet one final thing he perhaps covets more than anything else.
Yes, to have the honor of holding the record for reigning the maximum number of weeks as the number one, as the king of the tennis world. All he needs is two more weeks. That is too close to be given up, too tantalizing to stop fighting for.
So the only question is how can it happen? Any great achievement needs a special set of factors to come together for its fulfillment.
What factors and situations needs to plot together to give Federer this deserving last achievement?
I had painstakingly constructed an excel sheet after Federer won the World Tour Finals on the how the next year can pan out points wise and how federer can recapture the Number 1 Ranking from his kryptonite, Nadal. (you can find the excel sheet here.)
But the optimism that steadily increased due to Federer’s better attacking style, his spate of victories post-wimbledon and culminated in a peak after Federer decimated every top ranked player in the world including Nadal has turned out to be slightly misplaced after all.
Trick Behind The Trade
What most tennis fans didn’t realize was that there was a real reason Federer won so many slams all through the so-called TMF years.
The reason was he knew when to turn it on. He had fine tuned his game to peak exactly in the second week of every slam. He could afford it back then.
Why? He used to have a comfortable cushion of 4000 to 5000 points over the person behind him. He KNEW for a fact that nobody could overtake him unless they do something magical and win multiple grand slams out of the blue.
The above is also the exact reason why Nadal could win three GS titles last year.
Nadal built up such a cushion that he could zone in purely on the GS tourneys and coast along at other times. We can observe his results and we will see that he literally won next to nothing outside of clay and GS show courts. In short, He was turning it up when it mattered and just relaxing at other times.
That is what Federer used to do in the good old days…
Now The Mighty Fed is reduced to scrabbling for points in even lowly 250 point tournaments to hold off the hoard of younger guns fast closing in.
He has to be in top form for every single tournament that he plays.
This is the reason he had to turn it up in Dubai just before Aus Open. Dubai is usually a tournament he treats as pure warm up, but suddenly the points were important and he had to peak there.
I believe that he peaked too soon and the ebb started in the Simon match in Aus and by the time he met Djoker in the Semi’s, it was not the fiery peaking Federer who had blown an awestruck Djokovic off the court.
Federer with his new attacking style inspired by Anacone is still perfectly capable of beating any player as he showed in WTF, but the qualifier to that statement is that he needs to build up to a tournament and then get into his zone to be able to play that brand of tennis without enough errors for the opponent to sneak in.
He can’t do that if he is playing for his life in every Masters/500/250 tourney. And Djokovic was the beneficiary this year. If Federer had gone into AUS Open like he usually does and worked his way into the tournament’s second week, he would have been hitting top form by the Semis, which is what he used to do so well in his day, and the Slam would have been Federer’s for the taking.
And where does all this lead Federer to?
A Vicious Game called ATP Ranking
He now finds himself within firing distance of Djokovic who is a millimeter behind with 85 points less. Just to illustrate how close that is, all he needs is to perform better than TMF in one single tournament and Federer will be down in the third position. Now, it might not seem that a single ranking point fall is a huge fall.
BUT, there are four major types of ranking point falls in tennis:
1. The fall from 1 or 2 to three:
- Falling from 1 to 2 does not really affect your play statistically. All tournaments are decided by draws and the way draws work, seeds one and two are treated equally and both have an equal chance of reaching the finals.
- However the moment you fall to three, you then might have to face the number two player who toppled you to reach there (implying he is in good form) OR, more importantly you have an exactly 50% chance of meeting the reigning world number one – In this case, Nadal, the last player Fed wants to meet.
- So falling to three by extension means that fed will reach a lot lesser number of finals than at ½
2. The fall from 3/4 to 5:
- As explained above 3 and 4 are treated equally by draws
- This means that you have to get through one player ranked above you that is it
- The moment you drop to 5, suddenly you are going to be facing a 3/4 ranked opponent in the quarters and even if you get through, you still have the 1/2 player waiting for you as the finalist
- This means that you can exit in the quarters more easily and by extension getting ranking points to get past the player above you will become more and more difficult
3. The fall from 5/6 to 7:
- Now you stand a good chance of falling in fourth rounds and hence you basically get very few points unless you beat people who are good enough to be in top 5
4. The fall from Top Ten:
- Now suddenly you will find yourself meeting players ranked better and playing better in third rounds and literally meeting the best player sin the world in every round from then on
I guess the gist of what I am saying should be clear by now.
Why The Hierarchy in Tennis
What all this boils down to is the fact that Tennis is a highly hierarchical sport unlike football where France and Germany can meet in league matches and knock each other out.
This means that you have to work your way up the rankings and initially it might be easy to climb the rankings because either you are very talented or you are very motivated.
But as you climb higher, once you break into top 50 or 30 or even 20, suddenly you will find that gaining enough points to overtake the next guy gets tougher and tougher.
This is because you have to go deeper in a tournament than the person ranked above you and at the same time you get tougher players than him. So statistically speaking it should be IMPOSSIBLE for you to overtake anyone 2 ranks ahead of you. Strange? I assure you it is very logical. I am just going to hope you got the flow of logic till now and skip explaining that bit again.
I guess I will furnish an example* anyway: It is simplistic, bear with me.
- Suppose Soderling is currently number 5 and that Murray is ranked 4 and Djoker at 3.
- Also assume that He can never beat Nadal or Federer or Djoker but he is good enough to beat Murray sometimes and that he can beat anybody else .
- Now this means that in 50% of every tournament he enters he will easily reach till the quarters where he will meet Murray/Djoker.
- Now what happens if he meets Murray, let us assume he can beat him 50% of the time and if he meets Djoker he loses 100% of the time.
- In the rest of the 50% tournaments he enters, he meets Nadal/Federer in the quarters and he falls in the quarters
- All this means that Soderling will reach semis in exactly 25% of tournaments he plays in and get defeated there (he can’t beat Fed/Rafa/Djoker)
- Murray on the other hand – will win 50% of his meetings with Soderling and 50% of his meetings with Djoker and lose always against Rafa/Fed.
- This means that Murray will reach semi’s of 50% of all tournaments he plays.
- So what do we get? Statistically, Soderling can NEVER move up another ranking point! Nor can any other player for that matter.
*Of course, all of the above was based on a very simplistic assumption that no player is good enough to beat anybody two ranking ahead of him and that he will beat the person just ahead of him 50% of the time.
Well, that was a lot of explaining wasn’t it? Sorry for getting sidetracked.
But one more point: Just bear in mind that the inverse is equally true for what I illustrated above and that is what Federer needs to avoid. just as there is a curve up, there is a viciously steep curve down. the logic above was so that you can visualize how viciously steep that slope could be.
What Should The Maestro Do? If Anything
Let us get back to Federer again now.
We were talking about why a single fall in ranking can be catastrophic for federer now since that would mean he will have to scramble all the more for points which then translates to having even less chance of peaking for the Majors. As Anders Lammers explains in his article,
“in order to attain those kind of points, he either needs to win more or less all the ‘smaller’ events (a double in Miami and Indian Wells would help him quite a bit adding 1865 points alone) or to raise his level in the Slams to his usual standards. Quarters and semi’s won’t get him to the top.”
A Tall Tale
So essentially the first priority for Federer is defending his number two spot against the player who is in raging hot form having won AUS Open, Davis cup and finishing Runner up at the US open ad defeating Federer in the last two slam semi’s.
That as you can see is by itself a very tall task.
But wait, there is more to come! If he needs to have a serious shot at regaining number 1 ranking, he needs to play better than Nadal.
And how has Nadal been doing?
Nothing. Except for the fact that he has won three of last four Grand Slams and was hot favorite for the fourth till he was injured.
Impossible? Not exactly
The To-Do List
Here is a break down on what Federer needs to do:
- First and foremost, the thrust has to happen before Wimbledon ends
- This was the period when Nadal was most dominant – And because of the way the ATP ranking system works, the time when you were most dominant last year is the time when you are most vulnerable this year. Also, the time when you played crappy tennis last year is our best opportunity this year.
- These two things come together in the stretch of time between Aus open and Wimbledon.
- Federer played his worst tennis in 5 years and Nadal his best in his career
- So, what we have is that if Federer goes back to his pre 2010 level and Nadal also goes back to his pre 2010 level, then federer suddenly has a realistic chance of catching up
- Federer earned 1705 points last year during this period. Nadal? 7765 points and currently has 4425 points more than Federer. Let us assume that it is not humanly possible for Nadal to top his efforts from last year. So even if he defends all his points, this means that Federer will need to get a maximum of 6130 points during this time.
- The second possible scenario is if Nadal goes back to his level pre-2010 where he used to average 4000-5000 during this period. Then, Federer might need as less as 2365 points.
- So I think a reasonable target to aim for is to achieve around 5000 points.
Can he do all that? Considering that he used to average 7000-8000 equivalent points during this time in his peak years (note that I say equivalent points - the points system has changed over the years) This should be easier. But the fact is that now there seems to be another player who is regularly defeating him in addition to Nadal – Djokovic.
And when you factor in Djokovic and Murray also maybe sneaking a hard court title, I don’t see a way Federer can realistically hope to reclaim the throne in 2011 unless Nadal goes AWOL or Djoker emerges as a major threat to Nadal on clay.
The Two-Pronged Dilemma
To reiterate, Federer now finds himself with an impossible dilemma. A Two-Pronged Sword.
- He needs to be in top form and try, really try to win every tournament he plays as the Slams are not a guarantee anymore.
- He needs to do this to avoid falling into the gruesome downward spiral which I explained in detail above
- At the same time be able to coast through smaller tournaments so that as to ease into a GS and peak in the second week which is what he is better than anybody else in history at doing.
How is his amazing tennis mind going to solve this impossible new puzzle? If he works out a way, it sure is going to be the best year of tennis that I have ever seen.
But can he do that magic at 30 years of age against two competitors hitting their tennis prime and with young guns clambering up to start the next era?
When I started this blog post I honestly thought I had the reasoning to prove that Federer can definitely break Sampras’s record (which is out of grasp by one elusive week).
But as I wind up this article, all I have managed to do is convince myself how herculean a task it really is and how nearly impossible.
Here is hoping for that Miracle.