Tennis

Federer, his racket showing age

Columnist Greg Couch on the upset-filled Day 3 at Wimbledon.
Columnist Greg Couch on the upset-filled Day 3 at Wimbledon.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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LONDON

At this point, Roger Federer is just too stubborn. I get it. I understand. You do something a certain way, and every day for nearly a decade, that way recites back to you: You’re the best ever. You’re the best ever.

But the Federer era ended Wednesday. After reaching the quarterfinals or better in 36 consecutive majors spanning nine years, he lost in the second round at Wimbledon on Wednesday to Sergiy Stakhovsky, 6-7, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6.

Stakhovsky is not ranked in the top 100. He was 0-20 in his career against top-10 players, and now, as he said, “Someday I’ll be able to tell my grandkids that I kicked Roger Federer’s butt.”

I’m not sure that’s really Roger Federer anymore. Looks like him, but it’s not. Federer is losing the battle to old. It’s the one thing — other than Rafael Nadal — he cannot beat. No one can. Michael Jordan didn’t. Wayne Gretzky didn’t. There is no shame in it.

Federer, 31, is starting to look like a black-and-white photo. And though he’ll never dominate again, he doesn’t have to go down this stubbornly. He refuses to step up and use modern technology.

At the risk of getting too technical, I’m saying this: His ancient tennis racket allows someone like Sergiy Stakhovsky to beat him. It’s from 20 years ago. It’s flexible and weak and does not match up with his beautiful, old-school one-handed backhand anymore. On top of that, he has lost a step.

As a result, big-flat hitters are able to push him backward. Stakhovsky attacked all day, coming to the net and pushing Federer.

Federer is never going to win another major with that racket. He’ll still contend with a modern one, something stiff and, say, from this century.

I know the narrative now will be to look back at his career, maybe to write somewhat of an obit for him. He has won 17 majors, and he is possibly the greatest ever.

I’m just not ready. I want to wring out the last drops of his greatness. He seems to want to hang on to 2006.

This is the truth: Federer is still a way better tennis player than Stakhovsky, especially here, at Centre Court, Wimbledon. He’s also better than Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat him at the French Open. He’s better than the others who have beaten him the past few years in majors, too, such as Tomas Berdych and Robin Soderling.

These guys are blasting balls at him with modern rackets while he stands back there like an 8-track tape player. The fact that he still usually beats them is just testimony to his greatness. But he is giving them an advantage.

Yes, Federer won Wimbledon last year, but that’s because he played soft-hitting Andy Murray in the final. His previous major title, the 2010 Australian Open? He didn’t play the big bashers throughout and beat Murray in that final, too.

It’s not just athletes that do this sort of thing. In general, it’s hard to stop doing things the way you’ve done them forever, even when the purpose or need has changed. At 31, Federer is not going to get that step back. Legendary coach Nick Bollettieri wrote in a London newspaper the other day that Federer needs to switch to a two-handed backhand.

I talked to Bollettieri about it Tuesday and told him that that’s too much of a change. He needs a modern racket.

“You’re right about the racket,’’ Bollettieri said. “But that’s a big change, too.”

No, it isn’t. It would take weeks to adjust. Federer has tinkered with the idea, practiced here and there with a modern racket, but he says there isn’t enough practice time to make the switch. He told me the same thing a few years ago in Cincinnati when I asked him about it.

He also told me back then that it’s important to keep up with the times and said that he uses a mix of half-modern, half-old strings in his racket.

He just can’t bring himself to do it. But there’s something sad about this, too. The crowd applauded him politely as he walked off Wednesday. I’m sure they meant it in a nice way, a thank you. Federer said he appreciated it.

I wonder if he felt insulted. The best ever does not like pity or consolation.

“Well, what do you do after something like this?” he said. “What do you do? You do the 24-hour rule. You don’t panic at this point.”

At what point then?

“You know, just go to reassess at the end of the season,” he said. “If you do it during (the season), there’s got to be a good reason for it.”

That’s bothers me. Wait 24 hours, wait till the end of the year. Roger, you cannot keep waiting.


When Pete Sampras left, he said he wished he would have switched to a bigger, more modern racket. He had stubbornly held on to his past. Here’s something else that’s true: Federer is using almost the exact same racket Sampras thought was outdated in 2002. Jim Courier used the same racket, too.

It’s all touch, no power. When Bjorn Borg came back years after retiring, he tried to trot out his old wood racket to get the same old feel, too. It became a joke.

At the US Open two years ago, I talked to Courier about Federer’s need to move up with the times. Courier agreed but said that Federer had 16 major championships to back his argument.

Well, now it’s two major wins in nearly four years.

“I still have plans,” Federer said, “to play for many more years to come.”

Great. But you don’t enter the Daytona 500 with a horse and buggy.

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