NEW YORK -- Roger Federer couldn’t help but be himself a year ago. Which was unfortunate.
For more than 2½ painful hours, Tommy Robredo outhit, outmaneuvered and pretty much out-tennised Federer in every aspect until the former five-time US Open champ couldn’t take it anymore. The truth is that it was hard to watch but not completely unexpected considering the year Federer was having. When the match here in New York mercifully ended, he could barely muster the strength to wave to packed house that failed miserably to lift his spirits.
And worse, Federer’s performance was far from the rock-bottom result he had experienced just weeks earlier at Wimbledon.
But true to his form, Federer spoke with an air of optimism afterward. “I want to play better. I know I can.”
Turns out, all Federer needed was a new piece of hardware to get him on track. And no, we’re not talking about trophies, though that’s certainly a sweet little byproduct of his newfound success this season. Back in January, Federer permanently began using a blacked-out prototype racket, one with a markedly larger head size that would not only increase his own power but also help him stay competitive with the collective muscle in today’s game.
A few weeks ago in Toronto, the finishing touches were unveiled in Federer’s newest frame, which has been officially named the Pro Staff RF97 Autograph. According to Wilson Tennis, the racket “features a 26-percent wider beam” and a “10 percent larger sweet spot.”
Federer found that sweet spot frequently Tuesday night with a straight-sets win against Marinko Matosevic in the first round of the US Open. Federer was broken just once and now has won 10 of 11 matches since losing the Wimbledon final.
Afterward, though, Federer wasn't talking about Federer or his racket. How could he when His Airness was in the building?
"He was one of the smoothest movers out there," Federer said of Michael Jordan. "There are so many things that he did well and represented the game really nicely, I thought."
For the record, Federer has represented his game nicely, too, though six years have passed since Federer last won the title here. It wasn’t until an unsettling fallow period in 2013 that things devolved into a dire, desperate existence. And that’s when he finally made the decision to swap his dated relic for something with a little more punch.
ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who coached Andre Agassi to the No. 1 player in the world, sees a tangible difference in Federer’s game.
“He’s been using this racket for eight months, so he’s used to it,” Cahill said. “It's more now an extension of his arm. I don't think it's throwing him any curves. I think his game has picked up. I think it's definitely helped him on his serve, especially the first serve where he's getting a lot of easy power, and that means he doesn't have to press on his serve, so he's hitting his targets much better. That all means he's getting a lot of free points on his serve.”
Tennis players are notoriously creatures of habit. They like what they like. Since his maiden Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer had essentially used the same racket, albeit with a slight manipulation in its mold and, of course, with cosmetic overhauls. But by and large, Federer was unwilling to make any drastic changes.
With 17 Grand Slam titles, an all-time record 302 weeks atop the rankings, 22 Masters 1000 wins and his own area code in tennis’ grand pantheon, who’s to blame him?
Still, the low-hanging dark clouds couldn’t be ignored. Federer’s ranking fell to No. 8 -- his lowest since 2002 -- and coming into this season, there was a new, less ambitious reality. Slam titles and ranking points gave way to mere respectability. But Federer was far from acknowledging his tennis mortality.
“He made three adjustments,” Cahill said. “The racket has been crucial to him, especially playing against the power players where it's given him a bigger sweet spot and is allowing him to get a lot more of those shots, especially the hard, fast shots down the middle of the court. He can now block those back and that's where the racket is also helping him. I think he's healthy, which is a huge part of it. And, obviously, making a coaching change also reinvigorated him.”
So, Rog, why the wait to change frames?
“Basically, it was a year ago where I started the racket-testing after Wimbledon,” Federer said. “Anyway, it's a long process. But actually, it all went pretty quickly because I did not use it again here actually for this tournament. Right before I switched my mind, I switched and I said, 'OK, I'll play the year normally.'
“After all the back issues I had, I needed to first figure out what's going on with my game and my back. So I really lost a few months there.”
Anyway, that was so then. As it stands right now, Federer has 50 match wins this season, more than any other player navigating the tour. And this includes his championship run at the Cincinnati Masters a couple of weeks ago. Make that three titles and eight finals in 2014, also the best on circuit.
“After about two months, the fear wasn’t whether he'd decide to go back to an old racket,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. “Now, if he went back to his old stick, he'd be worse. He's totally used to this racket, and it's made him a much better player. I think that now the racket is second nature for him.”
And second nature just might lead him to first place in two weeks’ time.