Swept Up in Roger Federer Mania, Time to Get Grounded

Posted on October 7, 2004

By Richard Vach

"Wow, Roger Federer is so great, I think next year instead of winning three slams he'll win the grand slam (all four), maybe even in doubles too, while at the same time pinch-hitting for the Yankees during the season and maybe playing goal for Real Madrid. It could happen!"

If we receive any more e-mails like the above (paraphrased), I'm going to have to put the plastic keyboard guard back up to protect the computer from projectile vomit.

Roger Federer is not going to win a grand slam.

Not next year.

Not during his career.

Not ever.

Sorry Fed fans, that's reality. I love Roger. We love Roger. We all love Roger, it's a love-fest, Roger can do no wrong. He is great for tennis, a grounded, intelligent guy who loves to give back to the game. But no grand slam.

Fed fans and Andy Roddick fans are often polarized. To you Roddick fans tee-heeing out there, don't worry, your boy won't do it either.

No one will.

The odds are better of you rubbing off that million-dollar scratch-off ticket at the gas station check-out, then getting asked out on a date by Anna Kournikova who is standing in line behind you buying beer, then walking out the door and getting struck by lightning. Twice.

Yes, Federer has ushered in a new world order in men's tennis in 2004, and there's no reason to think it won't continue into 2005, or through 2010 for that matter. But watching Club Fed win three slams, then blurting out "Next year he'll win all four!" is not only far removed from reality, but does a disservice to his three-slam effort this year.

No man had won three slams in over 15 years, since Mats Wilander in 1988. I was in college at the time. I'm old. Judging from the prominent tennis demographic nowadays, you were probably still dashing home after school for milk and cookies, or getting that warm feeling in your pants during the drive home from pre-school.

Point being, there were great players before Fed -- plenty of them. Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors. They played with little tiny racquets, sported crazy headbands, wore really tight shorts, set all kinds of records. Pick the ones that won all four slams in a year. You can't, because they didn't. And the overall level of competition was weaker back then.

In '88, when Wilander won three, he did it against the likes of Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, and the emerging Andre Agassi, a lot of potential firepower to run up against. That year Mats was trounced by Miloslav Mecir in the Wimbledon quarterfinals 6-3, 6-1, 6-3. After losing Wimbledon he went on the win the final slam at the US Open. Would he have won the Open if he had the onus on him after winning the first three? Maybe. The added pressure would have been enormous.

The reason Wilander won three in '88 was because he changed his game. After hanging around in the Top 5 for years, he reasoned he needed a bigger arsenal to take his game to the next level. He took to transforming his clay-friendly approach, adding an attacking element by working on his volley and, perhaps more importantly, his transition game. One year at Cincinnati on one of the practice courts, a crowd watched the Swede for almost an hour practice nothing but his backhand slice, working on transitioning to the net and setting up the volley. Wilander never won Wimbledon, but became one of the greatest examples of what an all-court game can achieve.

If Federer is to win the French he will have to go in a somewhat different direction, developing the patience, fitness and guile to conquer the host of Spanish and Argentine dirt specialists always lurking at Roland Garros. It will be interesting to see whether he can do it in the next couple years, or if it gets to the point where he hires special claycourt coaches or goes into a Lendl-like surface-obsession frenzy.

As any top player past or present will tell you, the odds of winning all four slams in the same year are enormously stacked against you, ridiculously so. Those are eight weeks out of the year you have to be at the top of your game, both physically and mentally. If you turn an ankle, suffer some tendinitis, sleep wrong and wake up with a stiff neck, forget it. If a family member passes, you break up with your coach (well, maybe not in Fed's case), your girlfriend dumps you, your dog dies, someone keys one of your BMWs, forget it.

Maybe it rains at Wimbledon, making the courts faster, and some big-boomer who would normally not be as effective takes you out. Maybe it rains at Roland Garros, turning the red clay into a mud-pit and any of the Top 50-ranked Spaniards has his way with you. Maybe at the Australian you come up against an inspired Lleyton Hewitt (yeah, Lleyton always chokes it in Melbourne, but just pretend), or at the US Open you run up against a David Nalbandian-type who can't miss. Or maybe you're just having an off day. Because to win a grand slam, you have to play 28 matches without having an off day.

That's 28 matches to avoid injury, a slump, a mental meltdown, or losing to a hot-handed player. And the feat has become even tougher with the depth nowadays in men's tennis. The depth of women's tennis is also on the rise, but if stepping into a bathtub and getting the water level half way to your knee is women's tennis, the men's version would be leaping into the tub and disappearing completely underwater.

Lest you forget, Federer came perilously close to losing to Agassi this year at the US Open. He made mincemeat of Hewitt in the final, but you can surely see Hewitt rebounding to beat Federer in the future. Winning 28 matches in a row in this era -- not only bypassing Hewitt and Agassi at events, but Roddick, Tim Henman who beat Federer earlier this year, Guillermo Coria, Carlos Moya, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Marat Safin, Fed's nemesis Nalbandian, Tommy Haas, the list of players who would make any one match difficult on most any surface goes on and on. And these are players who can give you different looks on different surfaces, not simply pounding topspin from the baseline. Coria is not nicknamed "El Mago" because he likes to pull rabbits from hats in the locker room -- playing the Argentine on clay is a nightmare scenario of chasing down angles, watching winners pounded by you, digging out low slices and sprinting for drop shots for anywhere from 1-4 hours. Before he was injured, Coria had adapted brilliantly to flattening out his game on hardcourt, and even winning some rounds at Wimbledon.

Who knows when anyone will be able to win even three slams in a year again? It took 16 years after Wilander did it -- we'll have to put the research interns on it to check how many people were screaming "Next year he'll win all four!" in late 1988.

But, you say, Wilander is not Federer.

Don't get me wrong, Federer has a shot, never say impossible, but what he accomplished in 2004 does not now make the task any less monumental. For the three-for-fours like Wilander and Fed, the missing slam will always be, in this modern age, either the French or Wimbledon, highlighting the discrepancy between the two polar opposite events. Why Federer, who grew up on clay, won Wimbledon before the French is a mystery, but there is little doubt that he will not let Roland Garros become his lone career slam miss like former champions Arthur Ashe, John Newcombe, Pete Sampas, Becker, Jimmy Connors and Edberg.

Federer will win them all, just not in one year.

Tell you what, if you think I'm full of it, I'll give you 100-1 odds Club Fed doesn't win a calendar-year slam before his playing days are over. In other words, if you send me $1,000, when Fed wins the calendar slam I'll send you $100,000. Send it care of the Tennis-X website. Send it PalPay, money order, Euros, all pennies, donkey meat, whatever your currency of favor. Your investment will be safe with me -- and it could pay off handsomely.

Of course in the event Federer wins all four in a year, I would likely be forced to disappear to an undisclosed location -- Switzerland would probably be appropriate.

The above commentary reflects the opinion of Richard Vach, but not the rest of the Tennis-X staff who can't wait to see Roger drive that F1 to victory next year and beat Tiger Woods at The Masters while winning all four slams.