Roger is only in action on Wednesday at Monte Carlo. In the mean time I want to talk more about his recent on court problems. And while I have said a lot about it already, I believe there is a lot more to be said about it. Why is Roger having so many problems these days? It’s the question that’s on everyone’s minds. He seemed to be cruising to the grand slam record of 15 and obliterate it. But as things stand now nothing is certain. Where did it all go so wrong for Roger? There seems to be three arguments. One, time is catching up with him and he is simply not the player he used to be. Two, the rest of the field have caught up with him. Three, it is a mental problem, Roger has a mental block against certain players. So lets look at all these possible reasons for his recent problems.
Roger is now 27 years old. By tennis standards this is starting to get to the latter stages of your career, but there has been exceptions like Agassi and Connors who played into their middle and late thirties competitively. I don’t think age is the problem for Roger. First of all he has loads of talent and he is a great athlete, which if anything will make him play competitively for longer then the average player. Already Roger has made it clear that he wants to emulate guys like Agassi and Connors and play for a long time. There has been talk that Roger has lost a step and that his footwork is not what it used to be, hence the forehand that is not working like it used to. I ascribe this lack of footwork to a loss in confidence rather then something physical.
When a player’s confidence goes the first thing that goes is their footwork. Who knows if he is a step slower, I haven’t noticed anything. When you get to your late twenties you do seem to lose a step, but your stamina gets better as you get older. So you don’t really lose much physically in my opinion. Roger does rely quite a bit on speed, he is great in defence. But as far as I’m concerned he doesn’t need defensive skills to beat the defensive players like Murray and Rafa anyway. The whole point is for him to play as attacking as possible, so whether he loses a step or not is not that important. Therefor I conclude Roger’s problem is not a physical one. I believe the problem that he has had with his back is not something serious. Rather I think it’s a physical manifestation of the mental problems his been having.
He never had any injury problems before. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he has them now when he is also having confidence problems. The monocluosis that Roger picked up at the beginning of 2008 was unfortunate. I’m sure that played a role in hm losing to Djokovic in the Australian Open and caused him to have a slump in 2008. This may have played a part in Roger losing so badly in the French Open last year to Rafa and at Wimbledon as well. So while physical problems may have contributed to the start of Roger’s problems I don’t believe that is the problem now.
Now onto the second theory, which is that the rest of the field is starting to catch up with Roger, that they are simply getting better and that Roger can’t hold them off anymore. I think it’s important to look at grand slams where Roger has now reached 19 semi finals or better consecutively, losing once to Marat Safin at his very best, once to Djokovic when Roger was sick, and the rest was all to Rafa. So as far as the most important tournaments are concerned Roger has only really had problems with Rafa. And it’s not like he is getting wiped off the court. Most of the defeats came at Roland Garros, while he lost last year to Rafa at Wimbledon 9-7 in the fifth set. In that match I actually felt that Rafa looked like the winner throughout the match, even though Roger came back into the match.
But take the Australian Open final this year, the match was Roger’s for the taking. He had several chances to put Rafa away but couldn’t capitalize. So in the end I didn’t feel Rafa won that match, but rather that Roger lost it. The point is it’s not like anyone is dominating Roger. The important matches that he lost was actually very close with the exception of the French Open final last year. He lost a lot of matches last year to minor players when he was still suffering the effects of the mono so I wouldn’t read much into that. Therefor once again I can’t conclude that the field catching up with him is the problem. Sure Rafa and Murray is difficult opponents for Roger, but that doesn’t mean he should be dominated by them the way he has been.
Finally we get to the mental side of things, where I believe the problem lies. Roger started dominating the tennis world in 2004 and it lasted for more or less four years until the end of 2007. During this time he was virtually untouchable and dominated the game like no one before. He was in a bubble as it it were and no one could ever enter that bubble. Until Rafa came a long that is. In Rafa Roger might have found the ultimate rival. All great players need a rival to push them to greater heights, Borg had Mcenroe, Sampras had Agassi, etc. So Rafa has been a blessing in disguise because people wouldn’t be able to say that Roger won all these slams because he played in a weak era and he didn’t have any real rivals.
But I was never sure if this is the way Roger viewed Rafa. To me it seems he views Rafa more as a threat, rather then a challenge. So while he may not have admitted it I don’t think he gave him the proper respect. Not on court anyway. Because every time they played he didn’t seem to make any adjustments to his game, even when he was losing. This almost makes me think he is not up for the challenge. I was always amazed to see Roger slugging it out from the base line with Rafa and standing his ground. It seemed stubborn to me and later it became arrogant. So I wasn’t really surprised when Rafa crushed him at Roland Garros last year and caught up with him at Wimbledon. Mono aside, Rafa was always working at his game and trying to improve, while Roger was pretty much always doing the same thing.
This comes down to a mental thing for me, simple as that. It’s not because Roger is getting old or having physical problems or that the field is getting better. Roger is still living in that time when he was completely dominating tennis and happily living in his bubble. But things can’t stay that way they change inevitably. If a player is too dominant it gets boring anyway so I was glad Rafa came along. But I’m not happy with the way Roger has responded. He should relish the challenge, yet he seemed to have shied away from it. He must realize that he needs to make adjustments and actually work to beat guys like Rafa and Murray. It’s not like in the past where he can just dominate them at will.
It’s time to come down from cloud nine and become a competitor again. These days we see a Roger that plays a great set and then he just goes away. We saw that happen twice this year against Murray in Doha and Indian Wells, we saw it in the final set of the Australian Open against Rafa and we saw it in the final set against Djokovic in Indian Wells. I mean it’s shameful to be honest. This way Roger will throw away the legacy he has been working so hard for. He is now at the final hurdle and needs two or three more slams to really put it beyond all doubt. But he must overcome this mental hurdle. If he doesn’t I won’t have as much respect for him because if he wants to be known as the greatest of all time it won’t fall in his lap.
He has come all this way and it would be a great shame if he throws the grand slam record away because he was too stubborn or arrogant to change his game. I have said many times before what I think Roger needs to do to be more competitive against Rafa and Murray. It’s not like there is not a way, but he needs to be willing to adjust. What will make him do it? I don’t know. Maybe the latest disappointments will finally get through his stubbornness. It will just keep getting worse for him until he reaches breaking point, which seems to be what has happened at Miami when he smashed his racket. Maybe that was indeed the turning point for Roger and we will now see a new mindset from him. I really hope that is the case, because I want him to fulfill his destiny and break Pete’s record.