the troubled number ones

Posted on April 4, 2008

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“I hope the media don’t start “killing” Roger for this. He doesn’t deserve it and he is really a great guy. I am sure he will win soon again,” close rival Rafael Nadal said in his blog on Tennis.com, referring to Roger Federer’s defeat by Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami yesterday.

Nadal’s parents should be so proud to have raised such a gracious champion. But the media, and some bloggers, might not be as kind to Federer as Nadal.

Considering how hard psychologically it is for Roddick to try to bring an end to the 11-game losing streak against Federer, it was a sign of the tide turning against Federer, that Roddick dug in and believed. It is also a sign that things will only get more difficult for Federer in future, as more players lose their fear of playing him and believe in themselves more, having the faith that they can beat the great Federer and that he is no longer endowed with an aura of invincibility.

But that’s not to take credit away from Roddick’s game. This season, he had been proving his chops, already winning two titles, beating Nadal and Novak Djokovic so far. It looks like the high-profile split with his coach Jimmy Connors did not do Roddick any harm. Or if you looked at it another way, their parting of ways was actually good for Roddick. Or maybe it is his euphoria of being engaged, to a swimsuit model, no less. That sure could motivate a man.

In truth, Federer is in a funk that he does not seem to be able to shake. This is the first time he had not reached a final of a tournament, since 2000. Law of statistics or not, Federer’s consistency seems to be deserting him at this crucial juncture. Confidence appears to be an issue too. The old Federer would have had the mental edge to push himself to come back and win. He would no doubt have loved to be the winner in Miami, just to silence the critics and prove that he is not losing his touch, as so many have condemned him to be.

The season, however, has just started and has a long way to go. And Federer is working hard to make up ground on his weakest surface, clay. He is moving to Europe next and will be in many clay court events, in the run-up to the big prize, the French Open in Roland Garros. He would have to deliver in those events, so that the heat would be off him a little.

His female counterpart, Justine Henin, looks to be in a similarly vulnerable position. The start of this year has not been kind to her either.

While some might say that she does not usually come into her game until the clay court season, which is her best surface, it is the way in which she was defeated so far this year that should be a matter of concern for her and her coach.

Henin lost 6-4, 6-0 to Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and scored another bagel when Serena Williams beat her even more badly, 6-2, 6-0, in Miami. Perhaps her body is finally tired of taking all the strain she has been handing it for years, but getting trounced with a humiliating bagel is not the kind of score you would expect from a world number one.

In her defense, Henin, unlike Federer, has already picked up two titles this year, one in Sydney and one in Antwerp. But what many critics have been saying, about how thin the women’s field is, does not seem off the mark, given how the Williams sisters are able to play occasionally and still whip their higher-ranked opponents.

This year could be a watershed year in the tennis world, with both the men’s and women’s number one on the brink of being dethroned, if both Federer and Henin fail to step up and defend their titles and rankings.

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