Does Federer love a challenge ?

As I write this, I am watching Federer battle Nadal for that elusive French Open crown.

I havent watched too many Fedex-Rafa battles so I do not know the trend. From what I am watching, I get the feeling that Fedex is missing his most potent weapon : the effect of being at the right place in the court at the right time. Somehow, without anyone noticing, he is always there to retrieve the ball or make that impossible angle.

In this match, however, I see that missing completely. The balance is not there, he is somehow struggling to reach the ball. The number of unforced errors is uncharacteristically high. There is an almost a sort of defensiveness about his game. Pray why, I ask.

There are two types of greats in the sporting arena: those who love a challenge, and those who do not. When as a sportsperson or a team, you reach a position where you are considered invincible, there is an aura around you. The opposition feels that aura. It becomes more and more and difficult to beat you as that aura spreads. The mere idea of competing against you becomes a mental block.

And then, just out of the blue, comes an opponent who is able to put it across you. One or two losses are considered flukes.But the opponent finds a niche where he is able to consistently challenge you. Think about Rafa beating Fedex on clay; think about the Indian cricket team consistently beating the Aussies at home (till recently i.e) — the “final frontier”. Now, suddenly, the shoe is on the other foot. You, the champ, have a mental block of your own to overcome: can you beat this opponent in this niche area ? It becomes harder with each loss, the block becomes bigger and bigger and, eventually, it starts to affect your entire game. Take the example of Ivan Lendl, the number one tennis player before Boris Becker came on the scene. Lendl was unbeatable, he was my favourite player. Unfortunately, for him, he could never win the Wimbledon. Experts told us that grass did not suit his game, but I refused to believe that. Then, along came Boris Becker, his biggest nemesis. He repeatedly beat Lendl on grass. As a Lendl fan, it was painful to watch. The block, for Lendl became so huge that other areas of his game started to drop. Becker was now beating him on almost all kinds of courts. Slowly, Lendl faded. Like I said, the decline was painful to watch :I remember a game between these two when Lendl was disputing a call with the umpire (a rarity for the calm and self-effacing Lendl). He was imploring “I am already in a lot of trouble, please do not make it more difficult for me”. Becker eventually won that match and that was that.

So, as I watch Federer today, I ask: is this the weak spot that is going to bring his downfall ? Can he overcome this ? Maybe I am oversimplifying, maybe I am reading too much. However, I get the feeling that Federer just does not cherish the challenge to his aura. It is shaking him up that Nadal is not so easy to beat, especially on clay. It probably started as a minor irritant for him a few years back, but it has now developed into a major mental block. His movement on the court is listless, the backhand slice shot shows up meekly on most of the major points, the forehand slap-shot just cannot deliver the punch. Does he enjoy playing Nadal on clay courts ? On a different note, is this what differentiates him from the all-time-great, Sampras ?

This is where I admire the Australian cricket team. They just love a challenge. They know they are the dominating number one, but that is not enough for them. What they are so good at is not just playing better cricket than other teams, it is about playing better cricket under all circumstances: slow wickets, quick wickets, preliminary games, exhibition matches, tournament finals, one-dayers, Twenty20s, test cricket…everything. They do not have a nemesis. Till two years back, India was the “final frontier”. That was taken up as a challenge and not as a mental block. The Aussies just kept coming back every time — with newer ideas, better preparation, better players each time. They finally won. The Ashes loss in 2005 was a major event for them, they came back to retain the Ashes with a whooping 5-0 whitewash of England. A challenge to their supremacy is taken up with lip-smacking. They are aggressive when they take on their closest opponents; they are sure-footed every time. Defeats do not put in self-doubt, they are just vehicles for feedback, for improving the weak links; they are an opportunity to iron out the chinks in their formidable armor.

As I complete writing this post, I hear that Nadal eventually won the French Open. Things are falling into patterns. The experts will tell us that Nadal’s power game is better suited to clay, but I think otherwise. I forsee a great rivalry between these two, but I feel the intensity of the rivalry will be lowered unless Fedex loses his mental block. I hope he unleashes the true champion in himself.

In any case, I can always get back to watching the Aussies if my other sporting heroes disappoint me !

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