- Chris Wilkinson
Federer chasing one last shot at gloryChris Wilkinson July 30, 2013
This time last year, Roger Federer was the reigning Wimbledon champion. With a seventh title at the All England Club to his name, thoughts were turning to his bid for a second Olympic gold medal at London 2012 - in the singles event, having won the doubles with Stan Wawrinka in Beijing. The world was at his feet, as it has so often been over the past decade in men's tennis.
What a difference a year makes. After bowing out of Wimbledon in the second round, the 17-time grand slam champion took the unusual step of playing two clay court events back to back. Normally he would have been focus on his hard court season, but he has been struggling in 2013 - and if the decision to play in Hamburg and Gstaad backed up the theory, his switch to a new racket confirmed it.
Throughout his career, Federer has used the smallest racket head among the top professionals on the ATP Tour. Guys like Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are among the majority using rackets with much bigger racket heads, which gives them a bigger sweet spot and more power. It seems since Wimbledon Federer has decided if you can't beat them, join them.
A change of racket takes some getting used to. Federer had the option to play some matches without having to travel too far from his Swiss home, and clay is the ideal surface to fine-tune your technique. Perhaps he viewed the slower surface as a good testing ground for the switch. Did it played any role in his recent defeats? Quite possibly.
But it's what prompted the change that tells the bigger story. Both the switch and the extra tournaments are an admission that Federer is battling to stay at the top of the game. Since he won Wimbledon in 2012, his performances haven't matched up to his own standards, or those around him, the other members of the Big Four. He's been beaten by a number of lesser-ranked players, including Sergiy Stakhovsky (world No. 116) at Wimbledon, Federico Delbonis (114) in Hamburg and Daniel Brands (55) in Gstaad.
Professionals spend their entire careers trying to find a way to play better. When it's going well, it's a case of minor tweaks here and there. When it's not, it's often time to consider something more drastic - a change of coach, perhaps, or, in Federer's case, a change of racket. He must think that the switch will give him his edge back and restore something to his game that he's been lacking.
But does he have another grand slam in him? I think he's going to struggle. In some of my columns earlier this year I mentioned that it could be the year that he starts to slip off the pace set by Murray, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal - and he is. In the race to the ATP World Tour Finals in London, Federer currently stands sixth, with plenty of points to play for - both for him and the players around him hoping to finish in the top eight this season.
One of the factors in this decline is Federer's fitness. He's never really had injuries before in his career, which is why he's been so phenomenal, but he's had a bad back for a few weeks now which threatens to shorten his US Open preparations.
Federer may not be the dominant force he once was, but he'll keep going until his results warrant considering the end. As long as he has a shot at a grand slam title, he will be there. I think he's now looking to emulate Pete Sampras' final act - the American's 2002 US Open triumph. Sampras was struggling by then as well, and had slipped outside of the world's top 10. But at the age of 31 - the same age Federer is now - he summoned one last run at a major, beating Andre Agassi in the final to claim his 14th grand slam title. It was the last time he stepped on a tennis court as a professional, and he finally announced his retirement a year later.
It's a big ask to expect Federer to follow suit, however. He's got one or two more big tournament wins inside of him, but to win seven best-of-five-set matches over two weeks, and potentially having to beat the likes of Djokovic, Murray and Nadal in the closing stages - that's all but a fact of life at the slams nowadays - is a monumental task. I'm not sure his body is up to the challenge any more.
The next six months will be crucial. If Federer continues to struggle, then Wimbledon next year could be a defining moment, perhaps - the ideal stage to take his final bow.
Until then, however, he remains a factor in the top four - the ones to beat over the next couple of months - but there are players out there with the game to beat them on a hard court. I'll be keeping an eye on Wimbledon semi-finalist Jerzy Janowicz, Canada's Milos Raonic and Atlanta Open champion John Isner, three big guys with even bigger serves who can really work the ball on that first delivery, and who on their day can pose a pose a threat to the very best. Then there's Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov, another couple of youngsters with the all-round game to dismantle anyone on their day, while flat hitters like Juan Martin Del Potro and Tomas Berdych have the necessary weapons from the baseline to hit through their opponents.
On the women's side, Serena Williams' winning streak may have come to an end at Wimbledon but it's worth reflecting on just how impressive her run was, landing her the second French Open title of her career late in her 34-match unbeaten run. The world No. 1 is so dominant that she has taken the women's game to another level, and simply has the rest of the field fighting to keep up with her.
Going into the hard court season, she has got to be the favourite - I can see her pretty much cleaning up again all the way to New York. It's going to take something special for someone to beat her on home turf.
Maria Sharapova has pulled out of her next event on account of the hip injury she picked up at Wimbledon. It's possible that she is not alone, given the number of slips and withdrawals we saw on that infamous first Wednesday at SW19. Most players have had a lengthy rest and will be ready for the Rogers Cup tournaments in Montreal and Toronto, the first key checkpoint en route to the US Open.
It will be interesting to see how Marion Bartoli gets on following her Wimbledon triumph. Players talk about dealing with a hangover after a great tournament victory, and they don't come much greater than winning your first grand slam title at the All England Club. The question now is: how is she going to play when she comes back, with the added expectation of being the Wimbledon champion each time she steps on court? Can she back it up at her next tournament?
The same must be asked of Andy Murray, who is preparing for the US Open as defending champion for the first time. It'll be interesting to see how he responds to a new kind of pressure. That said, any pressure he now finds himself under must pale in comparison to the weight lifted from his shoulders by winning Wimbledon. It was undoubtedly a big relief for him, and he will be able to play with a lot more freedom now. He will win more grand slams, I can see it, and is now in a position to dominate those around him in that top quartet in the men's game. The big thing is the belief factor. Since winning the Olympics last year he has exhibited a new level of confidence that carried him towards his US Open triumph.
Finally, a word on Ross Hutchins and Anne Keothavong, two fine servants of the British game - one on his way back, the other calling it a day. One of my roles with the LTA is to work with the 12-16-year-olds, and during Ross' treatment he has come in and worked alongside me with the boys, so I've been with him quite a lot these past few months. He's a lovely guy, and it was a real shame that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at a time when his doubles career was really taking off with Colin Fleming, but he's such a fighter and has remained positive throughout. It's great to see that he's on the road to recovery, and it will be good to see him back on court. I hope the hunger is still burning there for him.
Alongside Elena Baltacha, Anne's status as the leading force in British women's tennis paved the way for Laura Robson and Heather Watson. A former British No. 1 and world No. 48, she's been a great ambassador for the sport on the court, and will continue to be so as she embarks upon a new media career.
Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1