At some point in your life, you were told that sports are 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. That adage does not change even when you are the most accomplished player in the history of your sport.
Roger Federer hadn’t appeared in the championship match of a Grand Slam tournament in more than a year, and he hadn’t won a Grand Slam in more than two years. Federer still remained one of the top ranked players in tennis over the last couple of years, but his performances had not been what we’ve grown to expect from the winningest men’s tennis player ever.
It’s hard to judge when a tennis player is in his or her prime because the window of success is often very short, and the talent pool around the player being judged is wildly unpredictable. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that Federer’s prime was between 2004 and 2009, when he appeared in an average of three Grand Slam championship matches each year.
For the majority of this period, Federer was unquestionably the best player in tennis, even as the men’s tennis game got more talented around him. But during the second half of this campaign, Federer had trouble fending off Rafael Nadal, particularly on Nadal’s favored surface of clay.
This rivalry came to a head at Wimbledon in 2008, when Rafael Nadal defeated Federer on the Wimbledon grass in arguably the greatest tennis match ever. It was a match that saw Federer lose to Nadal on his favored surface for the first time; and perhaps more importantly, a match that symbolized a potential passing of the torch. The match featured three tiebreaks, including an extended fifth set, which Nadal eventually won 9-7.
Federer was as exhausted emotionally as he was physically; and in one of the more memorable tennis moments of the last decade, Nadal’s championship presentation ceremony had to be delayed so that Federer could regain his composure after his heartbreaking loss.
Since that loss, Federer has spent each July (traditionally his strongest tennis month of the season) switching from tennis messiah to tennis pariah. Federer won Wimbledon again in 2009, defeating Andy Rodick in the second-longest Wimbledon championship match ever (his mathc with Nadal in 2008 is the longest). This was the victory that made him the winningest men’s singles player in history. In his next two appearances at Wimbledon however, Roger Federer was unceremoniously defeated in the quarterfinal rounds. His loss in 2011 came midway through the first tennis season since 2002 in which Roger Federer did not win a Grand Slam.
Many columnists (including yours truly) thought that Federer had finally run out of gas, but we were all proven wrong over the weekend when Federer appeared in his first championship since the 2011 French Open and soundly defeated Andy Murray with an incredible serve and volley game.
More important than his execution was his mentality. For the first time in years, Federer looked like the mental aggressor in a big match, dictating the pace rather than simply trying to counter punch. Federer acknowledged this change in his play after the match.
“This year I guess I decided in the bigger matches to take it more to my opponent instead of waiting a bit more for the mistakes. This is I guess how you want to win Wimbledon – going after your shots, believing you can do it, and that’s what I was able to do today.”
It’s easy to just say “I had a plan and I executed it,” but when you are able to actively watch it happen, the importance of mental strength becomes much more evident. In this specific instance, there was an accessory to this game plan: a roof.
When the rain started to pour down at Wimbledon, the tennis club elected to close the newly constructed retractable roof over the main court. This took all of the natural elements (aside from a clearly rain-slicked surface) out of the event. Once the roof was closed, we learned how dangerous Roger Federer really is. With nothing to obstruct him from doing exactly what he wanted with the ball, it looked late in the match as if Federer was toying with Murray.
Comparable to a baseball player altering his swing late in his career, or a basketball player changing the style of play as means of increasing his or her longevity on the court, Roger Federer proved that he was still the smartest player in tennis, even if he is no longer the most dominant. As the best athletes grow, they know their limitations just as well as they know their strengths; and by dictating the pace of the match, especially after the roof closed, Federer looked like the Federer of old.
Over the weekend, Federer broke out of a slump, that by the looks of it was more mental than anything else. With his mind once again set on dominating, it will be interesting to see if anyone can stop him at the US Open.
Article Written By: Jared Zeidman, Executive Editor, TakeOverTheGame.com