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Federer's No. 1 Focus

Australian Open 2009

Roger Federer© Getty ImagesA rejuvenated Roger Federer defends his US Open title just weeks after losing his No. 1 ranking.

Having been deposed to World No. 2, does Roger Federer have what it takes physically and mentally to become just the second player after Ivan Lendl to reclaim his place as ATP World Tour Champion?

As 2009 begins, Roger Federer has entered a new phase of his career that is potentially daunting, dangerous and distinctive. Daunting because he is trying to earn back his No. 1 ranking. Dangerous because the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and a host of rising new stars are nipping at Federer’s heels, eager to step up and make their own mark on tennis history. But, yes, distinctive because the possibility is afoot that Federer in 2009 could join Ivan Lendl as the only former ATP World Tour Champion to finish the year ranked at the top of the ATP computer after losing that spot.

Over the last half-decade, the 27-year-old Swiss had set the bar so high even he joked that, “I’ve created a monster.” Holding the World No. 1 ranking for a record 237 consecutive weeks, Federer took the concept of dominance to entirely new levels.

Though 2008 was a year most players dream of – three Grand Slam finals, including his fifth straight US Open title – it was also a year of tumult and challenge. As Federer said the evening of his win in New York, “To bounce back straight away after losing the No. 1 ranking, this is the best scenario ever.”

Federer’s frustrating year kicked off with a bout of mononucleosis that cast a shadow over his physical health and mental confidence. Not until April did he earn his first ATP title of the year. No sooner had spring ended with a rough loss in the Roland Garros finals to Rafael Nadal than summer commenced with an epic defeat at Wimbledon.

“I was always positive,” said Federer as he reflected on his frustrating 2008, acknowledging that things didn’t always work in his favour. “I lost quite a few matches I should have never lost, and they hurt.”

The notion of a vulnerable Federer, of a king seeking to reclaim his throne, has only enhanced appreciation for his incredible tennis legacy. One man with particularly keen empathy for his plight is Ivan Lendl. Twenty years ago, Lendl too had lost his No. 1 ranking after holding the top spot for 157 consecutive weeks. Like Federer, Lendl was thoroughly committed, disciplined and willing to put in the long hours – and make the personal sacrifices – required to hold the top spot.

Federer and Lendl also shared their enjoyment of holding the top spot. While the likes of John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and Yevgeny Kafelnikov struggled emotionally with being the hunted instead of the hunter, for Lendl, the view from the penthouse was splendid.

“Being No. 1 was great,” says Lendl. “There were a lot of perks, and really no pressure, because the way I see it pressure is self-created. Pressure is all about expectations, which is quite different than winning tennis matches.”

Like Federer, Lendl had been deposed by a man who had first made his mark on clay – Mats Wilander – but in due time broadened his game to excel on all surfaces. While Nadal’s rise to the top was triggered by a win over Federer at Wimbledon, Wilander also won an epic, beating Lendl in a five-set thriller in the finals of the 1988 US Open, a victory that ended Lendl’s three-year run in New York.

Unlike Federer, who’s won three Australian Open titles, Lendl began 1989 never having won Down Under. He worked feverishly in the off-season with his coach, Tony Roche, the legendary Aussie who from 2005 to May 2007 was also Federer’s coach, and arrived in Melbourne in superb shape.

With on-court temperatures during that 1989 Australian soaring past 60 degrees Celsius, Lendl won the title. It was the first of 10 tournaments he’d win that year, an effort that made him the ATP World Tour Champion at the age of 29. But as Lendl ponders Federer, he sees the Swiss pursuing even bigger game – just one title away from matching Pete Sampras’s Grand Slam record.

“Roger is looking at a different goal now,” says Lendl. “He’s trying to pass Pete so he can have that record and considered the greatest player ever. Winning the Australian can ease the pressure.”

There’s no question that a player who’s been No. 1 for an extended period of time generates the scrutiny of the occupant of a fish bowl. Just about anyone who’s ever toted a racquet had thoughts last year on what was plaguing Federer, how he could improve, tactics and techniques he must employ to beat Nadal and regain his preeminence.

“No, I don’t think it got me, but I was aware of it,” Federer said of all the armchair analysis conducted on his behalf. “Sometimes to a point a bit annoyed, because all sorts of crazy people started writing me. You’re laughing but it’s just the way it goes. People come out of the closet and think they can start helping me now. It’s just a pain.”

But however disturbed Federer was by what Sampras used to call “commentary,” throughout much of 2008 he was not commanding the court the way he previously had.

And then, like all champions, he found a way to get inspired. It came from an unusual source – but a familiar one to Federer. The Olympics had always been meaningful to him. His fellow Swiss, Marc Rosset, had earned a gold medal in the singles at the 1992 Barcelona Games the summer Federer turned 11, a moment he remembered quite well. Eight years later, Federer began his romance with his current girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, he was very upset upon losing to Tomas Berdych.

So it was that this past summer in Beijing, despite losing in the quarter-finals of the singles to James Blake, Federer found himself keenly motivated in the doubles. Paired with Stanislas Wawrinka, Federer competed with increased passion, showing off impressive aggression – and, upon winning, exceptional emotion.

“Right now this is quite a surreal moment,” Federer said as he held up his gold medal. “The joy of sharing this victory with somebody else who I like very much, who we had a great two weeks with, we’ve mentally been preparing for hopefully this moment, it’s quite different to anything I’ve ever gone through.”

The doubles win rekindled his spirits both emotionally and tactically. At the US Open, Federer showed more of a willingness to move forward, come to net and press opponents. As his childhood hero, Stefan Edberg, noted recently, “He must have realised the need to be more offensive in his game. He has to play more serve and volley and get in more variation so that he can come back to where he was."

The history of former ATP World Tour Champions attempting to regain their spot is sobering. Bjorn Borg held the top ranking at the end of 1979 and ’80, dropped to four in ’81 – and announced his retirement a year later. After a four-year run as No. 1, John McEnroe slipped to two in ’85 and finished ’86 ranked 14 (though he’d rise back to four in ’89). Wilander reached the pinnacle in ’88, but as Lendl pointed out, “that was the end of Mats,” who within a year of that US Open win was out of the Top 10 for good. Lleyton Hewitt, the youngest man ever to finish as the ATP World Tour Champion two straight years in 2001-02, also saw his ranking slide into double digits in ’03.

Lendl has a hard time believing Federer is in such a precarious position. “One thing Roger has in his favor is that everything comes so much easier for him,” says Lendl. “He can win points more easily. That’s never the case with Nadal, who’s more like Mats in that he has to get an opponent to miss or come up with a passing shot. Guys like Roger, McEnroe, even myself, we could hit a lot of winners, so there’s not the need to grind as much match after match.”

So with 2009 underway, what can we expect from Roger Federer? More emotion? Perhaps, but don’t expect him to ape Jimmy Connors’s fist-pumping. More sorties to the net? Quite likely, but he’ll never charge forward repeatedly in the manner of Edberg. While the great champions certainly learn and borrow techniques and tactics from other all-timers, what makes them excel is their ability to successfully execute their own personal style. “I imitated lots of players when I was growing up,” says Federer. “But eventually there comes a time when you have to do what works for you, to build your own game and playing style.”

Says Lendl, “Roger’s on his way to becoming the greatest player ever.” Asked what counsel he’d give Federer now, Lendl spoke with signature bluntness: “Advice? Roger doesn’t need any. Just go and get it.”
  
 

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