Tuesday June 22nd, 2010

Perhaps there's no resurrecting Roger Federer. Maybe he dropped the definitive hints at recent Wimbledons, strolling onto the court in those over-the-top evening jackets, as if preparing for a bit of pipe smoking with Alistair Cooke. Perhaps the rest of his career is just one big barnstorming tour -- "Come see the greatest player who ever lived!" -- as he swats those legendary groundstrokes, generally dominant but occasionally laying a massive egg.

It certainly makes for lively debate, especially after Federer was run off the court in the first two sets Monday against clay-court specialist Alejandro Falla. Federer admitted it was a match he should have lost, and we're all growing accustomed to the mood. Federer has become quite familiar with defeat, and the notion doesn't seem terribly bothersome to him.

I just think back to the first time I saw Federer, playing Pete Sampras in the fourth round of the 2001 Wimbledon. It was the first and only time they met on the ATP Tour, Federer on the rise at 19 and Sampras the seven-time champion at 29. It was a treasure of serve-and-volley tennis, both men charging the net at every opportunity and lacing precision volleys at the sharpest angles.

"Who the hell is this?" people wondered about Federer. He seemed to be floating about the court, every known shot at his disposal, playing in an almost dreamlike state. It was exactly how you won Wimbledon back then, especially against Sampras: As in boxing, you don't flitter around and get lucky against the champ. You attack him head-on and score a convincing knockout.

Federer changed with the times -- ahead of them, really. Just two years later, as he won his first Wimbledon, Federer used his net game as an option, not a staple. As longtime British threat Tim Henman described it, "In the early part of the decade, there was a subtle change in the way the courts played. The grass became coarser so that it grabbed the ball, made the court slower, and players had more time. So you were having longer rallies, the balls were fluffing up, and people were using heavier spin."

Add the inevitable spikes in technology, allowing players to sting the ball harder and more accurately on returns and passing shots, and the old Wimbledon formula didn't always work so well. I just wonder, though, if Federer might consider a trip back in time. He's one of the few players even capable of changing his style. He still has every shot in the book, including superb volleys, and it would take little more than an overnight decision for him to spring a few surprises.

It seems clear that he needs a new look. Players no longer fear the great man, not after watching him appear so vulnerable throughout the year, on every surface, even in crucial late-match predicaments. Valla had seen just enough of Federer (twice in the last month) to produce an excellent game plan. He was the one taking control, charging in behind certain groundstrokes, even serve-and-volleying on occasion.

Make no mistake, this tactic still works at the All England Club. Even the tedious Nikolay Davydenko pulled it out of his bag Monday as he came from two sets down to beat Kevin Anderson. But you really have to pick your spots, mostly on punishing forehand approach shots to the corners. "It's so hard now to play well going forward," Andy Murray said recently, "because guys are so quick, hitting the ball so hard and they put so much spin and angles on the ball, you can't really cover at the net."

I think Federer could pull this off -- not turning into Rod Laver or Stefan Edberg, necessarily, but putting the net game right back at the top of his arsenal. An obvious Wimbledon test would be against someone like Tomas Berdych, who was simply obliterating the ball in his impressive Monday win, but I'd like to see Federer come up against Lleyton Hewitt (it would be a semifinal). That would be the perfect forum for a change in strategy.

For years, Federer owned Hewitt, winning 15 straight matches in one stretch. They met three times at Wimbledon, Federer winning twice in straight sets (2005 and '08), and although Hewitt stretched him to four sets in '04, Federer won two of them by 6-1 and 6-0. If Hewitt were to repeat his stunning performance last week at Halle, where he beat Federer in the final, it would officially signal a new day in the men's game. If I know Federer (and I don't, but I've spoken to his jackets), that won't happen. He'll be a step ahead. And that only happens if he drifts backward in time.


Since we're on the subject of Federer, let's give some long-overdue credit to Chris Evert. We all know that Federer reached 23 consecutive major semifinals, easily one of the most mind-blowing records in all of sports. But it's not even the high mark in tennis.

At the age of 16, Evert signaled her arrival with a stunning semifinal appearance at the 1971 U.S. Open. From that point through the 1983 French Open, Evert never failed to reach that stage in a major: She was 34-for-34, lifetime. She skipped a number of Australian Opens, a common decision by many top pros in those days, and even went absent three straight years from the French, which she generally dominated. (Federer's record is singular in that he never missed any Slam along the way.) But Evert was 28 years old before she ever lost at a major before the semis (to Kathy Jordan in the third round of the '83 Wimbledon) -- again, 34 straight.

Why doesn't anyone ever mention this?


No one had more fun these last two weeks than Francesca Schiavone, the toast of Italy after her sensational victory at the French Open. Even Marcello Lippi, coach of the Italian soccer team, took time out from his World Cup preparation to watch that final, saying, "Her performance was symbolic of my Italy -- passion, determination, class and heart. A performance of limitless energy, surpassing even her own expectations."

It hasn't all been fun, in truth. "People coming up to me, thanking me, kissing me -- people I don't know," she said this week. "I play tennis for that. But I am human. Sometimes, the attention is nice. Sometimes, you want to be alone."

In vintage Italian style, Schiavone seized the emotion with a hardy grip. "I think she partied a little too much after the French," a smiling Martina Navratilova said on Tennis Channel on Monday. ESPN's Pam Shriver said she applauded Schiavone's performance as earnestly as anyone, "because it was an incredible breakthrough for her. But your life gets turned upside down with a result like that. Now, two weeks later, it's a whole new thing."

I thought Schiavone got a raw deal on Wimbledon's opening-day schedule. Robin Soderling, a French Open finalist, drew a Centre Court assignment (Tuesday); Schiavone should have been afforded the same honor. But it's all speculation now. Schiavone fought gallantly on Court 2 against Russia's Vera Dushevina before running out of answers in a three-set loss, and her many admirers mourn that result. She has departed much too soon.


So how to watch Wimbledon on television, before NBC takes over this weekend? For anyone willing to watch (or tape) ESPN2's live coverage each day, beginning at 7 a.m. ET, there's quite an array of broadcasters: Patrick McEnroe, Brad Gilbert, Darren Cahill, Dick Enberg, Cliff Drysdale, Shriver, Mary Joe Fernandez and the indispensable Mary Carillo. The coverage is thorough and comprehensive, with the priceless element of being delivered live.

Tennis Channel isn't such a bad way to go, however, even with its limited resources. Judging from Monday's opening telecast, "Wimbledon Prime Time" (7 p.m. ET each night through June 30) has only three announcers that are unmistakably on site: studio host Bill Macatee working alongside Navratilova and Jimmy Connors. There's a highlight package hosted by Justin Gimelstob, who says only that he's operating out of "Tennis Channel's control studio," wherever that may be, plus awkward cutaways to Los Angeles, where Arlene Santana provides updates on the later matches, right down to the Novak Djokovic victory (under the Centre Court roof) that didn't end until well after dark in London.

Fortunately, TC has access to the BBC Wimbledon coverage, and it gets no better than that. For Federer-Falla, presented in lengthy highlight segments, the viewing audience was treated to the combination of classy David Mercer and John McEnroe, long a staple of BBC's Wimbledon crew. It's always remarkable to note how the chatty McEnroe caters to the British style when he's in their employ. As TC joined the match in progress at 4-3 in the first set, there wasn't a word from either broadcaster throughout an entire game, save Mercer's brief explanation of a spectator close-up. ("Miranda Hart, the comedienne ... did the cycle ride for comic relief this year." Whatever any of that means.)

As points pass by in silence on a Wimbledon telecast, a distinct sensation comes forth. It's almost like being at courtside. There is no better way to go.

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