Fed watchers, Fed fans and Fedophiles, this is a good one! Top reporter Peter Bodo gives his thoughts on Roger Federer’s recent withdrawals from Dubai and Davis Cup in a thought-provoking piece that focuses on Federer’s transition into the final stage of his career – a stage that Bodo says must involve a new degree of self preservation. I urge you to read the whole thing at Tennis.com (click here) but have provided the following excerpt to both peak your interests and inspire debate. Tough, but fair, is my opinion:
It may seem uncharitable to second-guess Federer’s motivations or the degree of his injury, but the nature of the situation almost demands it, at least for a journalist, whose job it is to ask tough questions and perform due diligence. This is less a question of whether or not TMF is injured than a question of just how incapacitated he is and, secondarily, how realistic it is for him, at age 27 and with a load of Grand Slam miles on his clock, to expect to be in perfect physical health (which of the top players is?) at every event he plays. Federer’s decision to by-pass Birmingham is no small thing. And you can reason your way into a few good reasons for scrutinizing his withdrawal:
1- The last we saw of Roger, he went five sets tough with Rafael Nadal in a major final and showed no sign of physical distress.
2 – His decision was announced weeks after he played his last match in Melbourne, and shortly before the start of Dubai; if his injury is that serious, wouldn’t he have known it and made it a matter of record sooner – especially in light of the fact that he was giving his opponents no advantage, due the break in his scheduling?
3 - Nobody ever just pulls out of tournaments anymore; injury, especially hard-to-diagnose injury, is the trump card every player holds, and it’s the thing that keeps him from being a slave to the system. Personally, I prefer this imperfect honor system to all the alternatives, but that’s neither here nor there.
4 – To my mind, this is the big if most speculative one. For the second year in a row, Federer lost at the Australian Open, and for the second year in a row an injury/illness narrative has slowly emerged, and taken on a life of its own. And it has emerged long enough after the event to shield Federer from being accused of excuse-making, but soon enough to be absorbed into the conventional wisdom. I’m not saying this is spin, but I am saying that if you wanted to spin the losses, you couldn’t do it in a better, more artful way.
Still, nobody is inside the guy’s back – maybe it really is killing him, and he had hoped until the last moment that he would be able to play in Dubai and Birmingham. It would also be pointless to expect him to play if he doesn’t feel up to it – for any reason. By the same token, it strikes me as willfully naive to believe that the three extra days of theoretical rest is worth more to Federer - in terms of his conditioning and fitness, after he’s had over a month off - than the preparation for Indian Wells that the Davis Cup provided in the form of match play. Either this guy is a lot more hurt than he’s let on, or less motivated, for any number of reasons, than we expect or hope. . .
I’m inclined to interpret it this way: Federer has arrived at what is the third stage in every great player’s career. In the first stage, which begins when a player makes his pro debut, he (or she) fights like all get-out to establish himself as an impact player. In the second stage, which usually includes the Golden Age, he dominates to whatever degree he can, insatiably gobbling up titles, money and rankings points, in a Zen-like state of career-bliss. At this level, the player basks in glory, takes pride in what he’s doing for The Game, and very often develops a healthy to excessive sense of his own value. It doesn’t seem quite fair, but that’s why God made the third stage: It’s that period when the reality of tennis mortality sinks in, and the piper demands to be paid. A player, while still a young man, begins to sense that things may be slipping away, and – if he’s any kind of champion at all (and remember, there’s no law saying he must be,) he pulls out all the stops and kicks and claws to keep his place at or near the top.
At the third stage, the high-minded determination to avoid mind games and shrewd jockeying for advantage or position get shoved into the trash compactor. At the third stage, a champion jettisons baggage like his sense of obligation to The Game; he may thumb his nose at the rules of engagement that he once embraced, and he sometimes turns his back on people (including fans) who hang on his every word. He realizes something that he knew all along, but could afford to ignore when he was flush with youth, ambition, skill, and predatory eyes: I’m in this for myself; I can’t afford to belong to everybody anymore, because that extra major or two is worth more than all that other stuff combined. . .
Good stuff huh? What really got me was Bodo’s point that Davis Cup would be an ideal three day preparation for the U.S. hard court swing and that Roger really must have some major issues (mental or physical) to pull out from such a conveniently-scheduled, prestigious, and highly-anticipated event. I never really thought of it this way, maybe because as a Fed fan, it’s a pretty scary way to think about it.
What say you? Is Roger physically or mentally F.U.B.A.R. or is he engaged in the cold-blooded career maneuvering that Bodo says all great Champions do in the latter part of their career?
Slide show photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Post photo: Reuters