Call it what It is: A Slump
As impressive as was Andy Roddick’s streak-snapping win against Roger Federer last night at the Sony Ericsson Championships at Key Biscayne, Fla., what it confirmed in my mind is not how much Roddick has improved (now 2-15 vs. Federer) but how many cracks are evident in Federer’s formerly hermetically sealed armor.
Let’s call a spade a spade. Federer is in a slump, or at least a slumplet.
Consider the facts: The imperious Swiss hasn’t reached a final so far this season after averaging more than three titles through Key Biscayne the last five years. He has failed to beat a top-10 player, while taking losses to Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Mardy Fish and now Roddick. Most telling, Federer has looked shaky in the crucial moments of matches (as he did yesterday when he had Roddick down 0-30 at 3-3 in the third set) – a mental unsteadiness he sometimes displayed earlier in his career but had all but expunged by becoming so good those tricky moments rarely surfaced in his matches.
Let’s also be honest: The 26-year-old has set the bar ridiculously high for the past four years, a run that has included 11 majors (minus his '03 Wimbledon) and a record number of consecutive weeks at No. 1. Semifinal showings at the Australian Open and Indian Wells and a quarterfinal at Key Biscayne this year are results most guys would take hands down. And as we now know, he suffered from mononucleosis at the start of the year, which hampered his pre-season training.
Roddick deserves his due. Since shedding mentor Jimmy Connors last month, the 25-year-old American has notched wins over top-3 ranked Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, mostly by going back to the strengths that saw him win titles and challenge consistently for the top spot in 2003-2005 when he finished no worse than No. 3. That has meant letting loose on his cannon serve, stepping into the court a bit more and taking calculated risks by driving through the court more on his forehand side. Against Federer, he nailed 69% of his first serves and won 77% of those points, including 17 aces. He also hit a respectable number of winners (36 to Federer’s 47) and committed fewer error (19 to Federer’s 23).
Clearly, Roddick (like most of the men's field) has been emboldened by high-school buddy Fish’s 6-3, 6-2 shellacking of Federer in the semifinals of last week’s Pacific Life Open. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't encouraged by Mardy's result last week," Roddick said in his post-match press conference. Upon hearing the news from Fish’s fiancée, Roddick said he was so juiced he "parked my car and went out again and went for another run because I think I was excited and optimistic."
Slump or not, Federer is hardly in the dog house. In fact, I think he will turn it around on his least favorite, but hardly uncomfortable or unfriendly, surface - clay. It’s the perfect solution. As he works to get into tip-top mental and physical shape, he’ll get long matches. He’ll be able to groove his shots, hone his footwork and concentrate on point construction in a way faster surfaces like cement and indoor hardcourts don’t allow. Less will be expected of him, so he can experiment and tinker with his game, though he has been unassailably the second best claycourter in men’s tennis behind Nadal the last three years. In all, I think it’s a good formula for King Roger to reassert his place atop the heap and also make an assault on the one individual trophy that eludes him: Roland Garros.