Rumors of Federer's mortality have been greatly exaggerated
These are words I never thought I would utter: Roger Federer is being over-looked at Wimbledon.
The world No. 1 is hovering underneath the radar as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, before he fell in straights to Marat Safin Wednesday, get all the hype. It is a huge mistake. While Federer is more vulnerable than in previous years, his mortality is being severely exaggerated. He is the victim of the unrealistic standard he set the previous four years. It is the equivalent of Ted Williams hitting .280 for the first half of the seasons as opposed to his more accustomed .350!
Don't spend too much time worrying about Federer's future success. The beginning of his year was compromised by a legitimate illness that he downplayed because of his refusal to make any excuses that would belittle his opponent's accomplishments.
As evidenced Wednesday, Federer, winner of five straight Wimbledon titles, is at home on the majestic grass courts of the All England Club. What is different this year is that the gap between Federer and Nadal has closed. Nadal has improved many parts of his game, making him more offensive on his backhand and more comfortable taking the ball earlier off that side. He is also defending his forehand significantly better, so players can't gain value in the points by attacking that side to open up his backhand. Nadal's serve is most effective on the grass courts because of the sliding nature of his lefty delivery, and his transition game and net skills are very under-rated.
Similarly to how Nadal owns Roland Garros, until someone proves they can beat Federer at Wimbledon, the reigning champ is the owner not the leaser of the Wimbledon crown. I believe Nadal will win Wimbledon someday, and possibly even this year. I will even go as far as to say I think Nadal will win Wimbledon before Federer wins the French Open, but Roger's grass court skills are still the best in the world.
Before he lost to Safin on Wednesday, Djokovic was challenger No. 2 to Federer. The 21-year-old Serb will also be a future Wimbledon champion someday. He has so many weapons, but what I like most about him is his self-confidence. He was the first player to come out publicly and declare his belief and desire to supplant Federer atop the rankings and I think it is a huge factor in his success.
Djokovic's loss should serve to highlight how hard it has been for Federer to succeed on grass where the margins are thinner. Federer has been able to sidestep upset attempts by players like Safin, a former world No. 1 who is trying to resurrect his career. Talking to players leading into the Championships, they said they had seen Safin all over the practice courts and doing extra wind sprints. For Federer, the number of players making runs at him only grows.
One common attribute that these player's share is their movement and athleticism. It has become obvious that to compete at the elite level you have to possess the rare combination of strength, agility and balance, and these three champions personify it while separating themselves from the field. With Djokovic and Nadal capturing the first two Grand Slams of the Year, it is Roger's turn to hoist the Championship trophy.
Looking down the road toward the Olympics and U.S. Open, it will be interesting to see which of these three steps forward and claims his place at the head of the pack. The one thing I wouldn't do is overlook Federer.