Federer not Declining Physically–but Mentally

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Roger Federer started his 2018 season as impressive as his 2017 season: defending his Australian Open title, becoming the oldest World No.1, and creating his best start to a season, with a 17-0 record. However, especially after the Indian Wells final in March, the Swiss has suffered several disappointing losses–mostly matches of him close to winning, but not able to get the win.

Federer’s inability to close out matches is not a sign of physical fatigue, but rather a sign of drained mentality and a slight loss of confidence in playing the big points. Most of his losses in 2018 came inm matches that he was moments away from winning, but to the surprise of many, ended up losing. 

Indian Wells Final: lost to Juan Martin del Potro (4-6 7-6(8) 6-7(2))

The Swiss played Juan Martin del Potro in a nail-biting final, and was serving for the championship in the third set. Federer, who gets rarely broken in his matches, had three championship points, (40/15 up) but could not cross over the finish line to win the title.

As Federer said it himself at the post-match press conference after the loss: “I feel frustrated, you know, that I let an opportunity like this go by. Serving 40/15, any game I probably win – I don’t know what the stat is – 90-something%.”

This loss drastically decreased Federer’s confidence and mentality. Arguably, the main reason for his early exit at Miami was because of this loss (explained below), and also possibly the reason for his upsets at Wimbledon and the US Open.

Miami: lost to Thanasi Kokkinakis (6-3 3-6 6-7(4))

Another frustrating match yet again from Federer. Even though he did not have match point in this match, he was, however, two points away from winning (0-30 up in Kokkinakis’ serve in the final set) and could not capitalie on this opportunity.

Federer possibly was not fully recovered mentally from the del Potro loss the previous week where he had championship points, as he rarely throws away a 0-30 lead on the opponent’s serve.

Additionally, when the match went to the third set tiebreak, Federer was probably still having nightmares about the third set tiebreak that he lost against del Potro the previous week.

Wimbledon QF: lost to Kevin Anderson (6-2 7-6(5) 5-7 4-6 11-13)

Federer came into the quarterfinal match yet to drop a set or to be broken. The odds were heavily against Kevin Anderson, as he had never beaten or even taken a set off Federer in their previous four matches.

The Swiss looked comfortable and was leading two sets to love (6-2, 7-6). No one on Court 1 suspected Federer was going to lose that match, as he served for a place in the semifinals at 5-4 and had match point.

To Anderson’s credit, he did play well towards the latter stages of the match and was toe-to-toe with Federer in some rallies. Despite that, it was still a match Federer should have won, as he had so many opportunities to break Anderson (converted only 3/12 break points) and regain control of the match.

As Federer described the match at the press conference: “It was just one of those days, where you hope to get by somehow. I almost could have, I should have.”

This loss was the first time in Federer’s career in which he lost with a match point at Wimbledon.

US Open R4: lost to John Millman (6-3 5-7 6-7(7), 6-7(3))

Before his upset against John Millman in the fourth round, Federer faced Yoshihito Nishioka. Despite winning that match in straight sets, it was worth noting that Federer did have a mini-hiccup during the third set of that match. The Swiss was 4-0 up and cruising to a straight sets win. However, the lead was reduced as Federer made a series of decisions.

At one point it looked as though Federer might be troubled and drop the set, but nevertheless won the set 6-4. Despite winning that set, it was an early warning sign Federer might be a bit off in confidence closing during the US Open.

The match against John Millman is another example of Federer not able to close out matches when given a huge lead. The Swiss was 6-3 5-3 ahead and was also serving for the set at 5-4 with 2 set points for a 2-0 set lead.

Both the third set and fourth set went into tiebreaks. Going to tiebreaks, Federer was the heavy favourite as he had a 16-6 tiebreak win-loss in 2018, whereas Millman had a 6-10 deficit. The Swiss had another set point to win the third set, however, could not convert and dropped the set.

It is interesting to note that if Federer converted both the set points in the second and third set, the match would have ended in straight sets in Federer’s favor.

In sum, Federer had chances to win the match in straight sets, but simply could not convert the big points.

Conclusion

Tennis is not just a physical sport, but also a highly mental sport. A few moments of doubt in the mind could decide the result.

The final at Indian Wells against del Potro emotionally drained Federer. It is arguably the reason why Federer has not been able to reproduce the results he had in the latter stages of the year in 2017.

Federer is not suffering physical fatigue problems in his matches. The matches he plays and loses are often just him not being able to capitalize on the opportunities given to him; thus it is not a physical problem but rather a confidence and mental strength issue.

*According to the FedEx statistics, (after US Open 2018), Federer has the lowest break point conversion percentage in the Big Four.

2018 Season: Break Points Converted Big Four (exc. Andy Murray)
Percentage Converted Points Won Total Points Matches Played
Roger Federer 39.7% 131 330 42
Rafael Nadal 45.57% 216 474 47
Novak Djokovic 40.91% 207 506 50

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