TEBBUTT: UNDERWHELMING END TO 2014?
Airplanes don’t look quite the same on the ground as they do in the air, so words put together at 31,000 feet on a ‘silver bird’ flying at 570 mph over the Atlantic risk having a rough landing on terra firma – but here goes anyway.
These lines, written on a flight from London to Toronto on Monday, are about the upcoming Davis Cup final and the ATP World Tour Finals (WTF) which came to a brutal ending on Sunday when Roger Federer had to pull out of the championship match against Novak Djokovic after injuring his back in a highly-theatrical and often spectacularly-played semi-final with Swiss compatriot Stan Wawrinka on Saturday night.
Federer, for the third time in a little over two months – two vs. Gael Monfils at the US Open and five vs. Leonardo Mayer in Shanghai – saved match points, this time four in overcoming Wawrinka 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(6) in two hours and 48 minutes.
It was a match where there could have been a lot of second-guessing. Wawrinka seemed like the better player for much of it, and Federer himself admitted as much later. Turning to two colleagues sitting in the media seats at the O2 Arena during the match with Wawrinka hitting the ball bigtime off both sides, yours truly joked at one point, “Stan thinks he’s Roger.”
After Federer held on, but just barely, to win the second set, Wawrinka broke serve in the opening game of the third and eventually served for the match at 5-3. He had three match points and went for it on those points – serve-and-volleying on all three. But Federer was able to counter with two winning passing shots and a return that forced a backhand volley error.
On the other hand, Federer had to watch as Wawrinka hit two mis-hit volley winners a key moments and also had two incorrect calls go against him in the third set– one on the very first point and another when his on-the-line first serve was called out when he led 5-3 in the final-set tiebreak. Wawrinka ultimately won the point and went on to have yet another MP (forehand service return long) before Federer closed out the match 8-6 in the tiebreak with a stylish forehand drop volley winner.
Later in his media conference closer to 1 a.m. than midnight, he talked about what he would do to recover before Sunday’s scheduled final against Djokovic, and said, “I’m going to try to get back as quick as possible, try to recover, stretching, massage, sleep, eat. Do all those things fast. The problem is it’s a bit of a drive home. So it takes a while. It’s not like it’s five minutes away like in other places. Going to lose some time there.”
His remark, unusually detailed in the circumstances, about the drive home set off alarm bells for this writer. It indicated he wasn’t at all comfortable and was the first inkling that he might not be fit enough to play the final.
That proved to be the case, and kudos to him for making the announcement (at top) himself in the arena about the back issue that forced him to withdraw.
Even if there were mixed reactions at the announcement, including from the pair of Federer fans above, Andy Murray was sporting enough to make his way to the O2 and play a pro set with Djokovic, won 8-5 by the Serb. ATP chief Chris Kermode later revealed that neither Murray nor John McEnroe, Tim Henman or Pat Cash, who played a doubles exo afterward, were paid a fee.
No actual championship match took a bit of the shine off Djokovic’s victory and his solidified status as the world No. 1. But there’s no question he was the best player of 2014 – winning the biggest tournament of the year – Wimbledon – and being runner up at Roland Garros, a semi-finalist at the US Open and a quarter-finalist at the Australian Open as well as capturing four (Indian Wells, Miami, Rome and Paris) of the nine Masters 1000 events – that’s five of the 10 premier ATP events if the WTF are included.
The Serb, at 27, has matured into a statesmanship-like character and that means the sport should not suffer irreparably if Federer and possibly Nadal (currently undergoing stem cell treatment on his troublesome back) are forced out of the game prematurely in the next year or two.
As much as Djokovic dominated the ATP World Tour Finals – losing a total of just nine games in round-robin wins over Marin Cilic, Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych to become the first player since Ivan Lendl (1985-87) to win three year-end championships in a row – Federer was really the focus of the event from the start. There was a very faint possibility that he could overtake Djokovic for No. 1, but mostly it was in relation to his quest for a seventh WTF title and, at least equally, to his attempt the following week to lead the Swiss to its first ever Davis Cup in Lille, France, against the French.
Looking back, in his pre-event media conference, Federer said that he would not be thinking at all about Davis Cup, claiming that would particularly apply during the round-robin matches. Indeed he pretty well breezed through them, culminating in that merciless 6-0, 6-1 thrashing of Murray in his third one. Davis Cup genuinely did not seem to be a distraction.
Ironically, in what was indirectly a self-fulfilling prophecy, the exhausting semi-final with Wawrinka seemed to change everything. The incredible resistance required to withstand his compatriot’s assault must have had him thinking about the effort he was making – first because it lasted until 11 p.m. and he knew he had to come back and play Djokovic, already through after beating Nishikori in the afternoon session, the following day at 6 p.m., and second because in just two days he would be off the Greenset hard court in London and on the red clay in Lille preparing Davis Cup.
Federer is only human and it had to cause him some stress. On top of that there wound up being an incident in the third set when Wawrinka apparently went over and challenged Federer’s wife Mirka in the courtside seats. Reports have it that she was calling out things while Wawrinka was serving and also replied that he was a “crybaby” when he complained to her.
Here is a video from The Telegraph of the incident at 5-all, deuce, in the third set.
Afterward, Wawrinka, whose first language is French, sloughed it off in his media conference saying about what happened during an interaction with someone in the crowd was, “not much. Nothing special. Tense match. It’s never easy.”
But it appears the Swiss No. 1 (Federer) and Swiss No. 2 (Wawrinka) had words post match.
Tennis correspondent Barry Flatman of the Sunday Times tweeted about John McEnroe and his knowledge about post-match friction between Federer and Wawrinka on Saturday night:
John McEnroe has now made it public: “Something went on in the locker room between Fed and Wawrinka & it extended long into the night.”
— Barry Flatman (@Barry_FlatmanST) November 16, 2014
On Monday, Federer tweeted the (damage control?) picture below of him and his Davis Cup mates – left to right Marco Chiudinelli, captain Severin Luthi, himself, Wawrinka and Michael Lammer.
The Swiss, and Federer fans everywhere, will be hoping he and Wawrinka can work as a cohesive unit against a French team led by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet in singles. Sources say Gasquet had looked good in practice in Bordeaux last week, but logic suggests that Monfils will probably be the second singles player behind Tsonga. That would mean Monfils, who famously had those two match points against Federer at the US Open, would play singles on the opening day against him.
But that is all up in the air with Federer’s dodgy back, and with it whether or not the final can be realistically competitive. Switzerland’s two other players beside Federer and Wawrinka are virtual singles nonentities – No. 231-ranked Marco Chiudinelli, age 33, and No. 508 Michael Lammer, 32. Neither has won an ATP tour level match this year.
Let’s look at the possibilities – positive and negative – of Federer being physically fit enough to be something close to himself in Lille:
- Pulling out of the final with Djokovic was only a precaution. He played with a hurting back vs. Nadal at Indian Wells ’13 and later said he shouldn’t have. He regretted doing it and claimed it significantly affected his preparation for last year’s clay-court season.
- Federer was in top-form in the round-robin phase last week with wins over Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Murray, so he knows his game is where he needs it to be.
- He may be being overly careful, especially because he probably has beaten lots of players when his back wasn’t right. But he knew that wouldn’t apply in the final against someone as good as Djokovic – the ultimate test in tennis these days.
- His fitness trainer Pierre Paganini has performed miracles getting him back into revitalized shape to do so well in 2014 – and may be able to do it one more time.
- The clay in Lille is a softer more forgiving surface exerting different pressures on the body. Potentially it can it can be easier on his back.
- The French could be over-confident, thinking that without a 100 per cent Federer, they’re the odds-on favourites. Maybe the 17-time Grand Slam winner can surprise them.
- Davis Cup is 3-of-5 set matches, Federer could get caught in a drawn out affair with any weaknesses in his back being exposed.
- It had to be reasonably serious for him to pull out the WTF final because he has won six year-end titles and obviously would have liked a shot at a seventh, particularly in a year when he didn’t win a Grand Slam.
- Back issues rarely go away quickly. Look at Nadal suffering with a back problem in the Aussie Open final on Jan. 26 and, now at the very end of the season, he’s about to receive special treatment to deal with it.
- Federer mentioned Sunday, in withdrawing from the WTF final, that there could be long-term effects of the back problem. Maybe he’s not willing to risk it, even for a shot at his first Davis Cup title.
- He is no longer 24, he’s 33. The added stress of representing his country and of trying to win arguably the only meaning title left for him to chase, could exacerbate his injury.
- It may be worrisome that Federer parted ways, after five years together, with physio Stéphane Vivier seven weeks ago. He had appeared remarkably fit through all of 2014, but now his back has suddenly become an issue again.
It would be a hugely anticlimactic if the peerless Federer cannot play, especially for those buying highly-coveted tickets for the matches in the 27,000-plus seat retractable roof stade Pierre-Mauroy (above) in Lille.
That would be two major events in a row that would be disappointments because of the fitness issues of tennis’ No. 1 ambassador. No one, including the French who are Federer-philes of the first order, want a final without the aesthetically-pleasing and athletically-gifted Swiss superstar.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, Federer had these quotes about the possibility of him playing Davis Cup this weekend.
“It's the same back problem I've had before. It was too serious to play the (WTF) final. We'll see if it gets better.”
“It's still my back problem but this time it's more severe. Am I worried? We'll see.”
A visit to the All England Club last week revealed a much more barren looking Wimbledon, with the Centre Court ivy turned a rust-coloured hue as can be seen in the picture above taken from beside Court 8.
At one time many years ago, tall hedges divided the outside courts at Wimbledon, but now there are just canvas screens put up to cordon off the pathways. They obviously can be removed as the above view from Court 4 out toward Court No. 2 stadium shows.
There are a few interesting aspects to this picture of Centre Court. The score of last year’s men’s final is still on the scoreboard, there’s a rolling light structure that’s moved back and forth to warm the hallowed grass as well as electrified fencing around the court that keeps neighbourhood foxes from visiting and urinating on the most famous tennis lawn in the world.
There are 14,979 seats in Centre Court and every single one, as shown in the picture here, is individually bagged to keep them in fine fettle for the spectators at next year’s edition of The Championships.
PAPA HAS A BACKHAND
Tennis commentator Robbie Koenig posted this video of Roger Federer’s father hitting with him and it is remarkably timely in view of a brief encounter I had on Saturday before the Federer – Stan Wawrinka watch.
The WTF had a reception for journalists attending the event and it was held in a suite high up in the O2 Arena. Yours truly had indulged in three glasses of Moet & Chandon (shameless plug for an event sponsor) when he left the event about 15 minutes before the semi-final match was to start. Sitting nearby as I exited was the senior Federer. He has always seemed a good-natured, approachable guy so I went over to him in a friendly manner and said, “how’s your forehand?” Playing along, Roger’s papa answered with a smile, “my backhand’s better.”