Patrick Mouratoglou

Can Federer return to the very top?

Patrick Mouratoglou

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After Roger
Federer lost in straight sets in the ATP Dubai final against Novak Djokovic, can
we now consider the Swiss a player in terminal decline?

We looked
forward to watching this match as the Serbian has been on an upward trajectory since
his Davis Cup and Australian Open triumphs. On the other hand, the Swiss's form
is dropping off. Everybody is now speaking of a changing of the guard at the
top of the rankings, and the next battles between the two players will be
scrutinised heavily.

Federer's
excellent mindset achieved last summer has been absent since the start of 2011,
while if we're relying on results, you cannot deny that he has been in decline
for a year and a half. Rafael Nadal is now comfortable on the No.1 throne and
looks unreachable, while Djokovic has the No.2 spot within reach.

But is
Federer's fall irremediable? Looking at the technical and tactical reasons for
his current lack of efficiency, let's have a look at what would need to happen
for him to return to the top.

Focusing
issues

Watching
his matches, you are struck by the many unforced errors he is making. He often seems
to struggle with his focus, so his matches are always up and down. He often has
streaks of winners followed by easy mistakes: he can be up 30-0 with two
winners then be pulled back to 30-30 with two errors - then win the game with an
ace and a forehand winner. That is always enough to get through the first
rounds, because his margin is so huge - but he's paying the price for it
against the top players. At the top level, you cannot allow yourself to play
with fire like this.

A less-efficient serve

We were
used before to his high first serve efficiency, which gave him a lot of aces or
winners. His second serve does not allow him to take charge of the rally in the
same way. That, added to the amazing returning abilities of Nadal, Djokovic and
Andy Murray, has beaten one of his key weapons down. Let us not forget that he
basically won the 2009 Wimbledon final against Andy Roddick on the back of his
service. The Dubai final stats say it all: five aces (the same number as the
Serbian), 63 per cent efficiency on his first serve (Nole had 82) and 39 per
cent on his second serve (56 for Djokovic). Nole broke four times in the two
sets, which both finished 6-3.

An
ever-shortening gameplan

If the
Swiss has always been at his best when playing short points, as years pass the
length of his successful points is becoming shorter and shorter. I was amazed
by another stat against Djokovic: after one set, he had won only 20 per cent of
the points when the rally lasted more than eight shots. It is the exact gameplan
set up by Rafa in order to beat Roger: keeping him on his backhand and prolonging
the rally puts Federer out of his comfort zone. Against Nole, he often gave the
impression that he was seeking to get rid of the ball quickly - as if he knew
he wouldn't win the point if the rally was too long. Because of this, his shot
selection suffered and he took too many risks on the wrong balls.

Training
and injuries?

Federer
is still young at 29 and it is reasonable to expect that he has a few more
great years in front of him. His style of play saves a lot of energy while his flexibility
and fluidity of movement also help him to save his body. It is a body perfectly
suited to this game: tall - but not too tall - slender and not too muscular.
Yet you have to wonder whether he is feeling at his best physically: is the
back pain that troubled him in the past over with? What has always been true -
and forms the basis of my coaching methods - is that a player's training
sessions resemble their matches: behaviour, sequences and intensity put in day
after day of course play a big part in the final performance. So how is the
Swiss training? Is he able to get through sessions maintaining a high level of
physical intensity?

His
approach

If it
seems logical that the Swiss will struggle to last the longer rallies as he
grows older, he must keep some offensive weapons at their most dangerous if he
wants to succeed with shorter rallies. He needs at his disposal his serve,
forehand, explosive footwork - to take the ball early - chip and charges and,
of course, his volleying game. He should really work on his short game - I do
not doubt that that is the wish of his coach Paul Annacone, as evidence of
these has been seen in recent times.

Commitment

It is
so important for him to play each match with 100 per cent commitment. Matches
will become more intense for him, but likely quicker; Pete Sampras, at the end of
his career, was playing only one returning game to the maximum - and it was often
enough to win the match. He knew how to play at his best when the time came,
and we must not forget his outstanding serve and net game which was the basis
of his entire career. Federer's supreme talent means that he can return to the
top - no doubt about it.

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