How 8 Square Inches Will Signal The End of Roger Federer's Career
Roger Federer isn't confident that he can win another major tournament. That's not my opinion that's a fact. The proof is located in his tennis bag: his brand new 98 square inch tennis racquet.
Federer has used a 90 inch tennis racquet for his entire storied career. Federer's stick was one of the smallest on the tour. Most top players use racquets with a hitting area of anywhere from 95 to 103 square inches (which are called midplus racquets). Typically the larger the racquet, the more power and spin a player can place on the ball. The smaller the racquet, the more precision and control a player can hit with. Someone who is smaller in stature can opt to use a bigger racquet (anything over 100 square inches) in order to generate power. Someone who can supply their own power can opt to use a smaller racquet in order to obtain control and placement. For example, I have a bigger build and can hit the ball fairly hard, so I play with a racquet that is smaller (95 square inches) which helps control my shots.
Top tennis players may change brands of tennis racquets, especially if they change sponsors, and they typically change styles of racquets, as newer models come out on a regular basis. But when they change the size of their racquet, it is a pretty big deal. Doing something as drastic as changing from a small racquet to a midsized racquet will take time to adjust to and will ultimately require the player to alter their playing style. Every swing of the new racquet will produce a different result; balls will have more spin and more power behind them but will have to be aimed in a different location in order to land in the court. You can't just switch racquets and assume that everything is going to be alright. There needs to be a learning curve in order to get fully adjusted to what the new weapon will do to your game.
It will be a tragedy if Roger Federer has to change his beautiful game in order to accommodate to his new racquet, but ultimately I think he'll have no choice. Every single aspiring tennis player should emulate their game (and their demeanor) around Federer. He makes the game look so easy, so smooth, and so wonderful. Every shot that comes off of his (old) racquet is precise, accurate, and struck perfectly. Every shot is textbook; his form and his footwork is spot on every single time. This will all change with a bigger racquet. When shots are coming at you at over 100 mph, you have fractions of a second to react to them. Everything Federer does is going to change with a different sized racquet. Since the racquet is bigger, shots that were hit dead center are going to be slightly off center, and those that were slightly off center are going to be way off center. That fraction of an inch will create varying pace, spin, and placement. The top players hit the balls so hard and so close to the lines that even a tiny variance will change everything. Federer will have to change his swing, his aim, and his timing in order to fully adjust to the new racquet. Those things will take lots of time and practice, as even the best player ever can't perform miracles overnight.
Which makes me wonder why Federer chose to change racquets in the middle of the season? He must be frustrated with how his season is going (although 99.9% of professional tennis players would love to have the season he is having). For someone that is accustomed to dominating the tour year in and year out, having a subpar season must be killing him. He has failed to make a final in a major tournament this season, as his finishes in the Grand Slam events have gotten progressively worse throughout the year (semis at the Aussie Open, quarters at the French, and 2nd round at Wimbledon). He has slipped to fifth in the current ATP Tour rankings, which is his lowest ranking since 2003. He used to be a lock to reach the semis or finals in every tournament he entered; now he is losing early round matches to guys ranked outside the top 100 on a regular basis.
So instead of letting the slow and steady slide down the rankings continue, Federer has decided to change his racquet in order to try to regain his spot at the top of the game. Too bad it's not going to work. Changing racquets is going to change his game, which is the worst thing that Federer can do. Other players have tried to change their games at various stages of their career, and it hardly ever works out. Andy Roddick was the #1 in the world until Federer came along and started to dominate the sport. Roddick had two choices: continue to do the things that got him to the top spot in the world (serve huge and hit big forehands), or try to make the adjustments that he thought would allow him to contend with Federer at major tournaments. So he changed his playing style and tactics, hitting more slice backhands, coming to the net more, and playing with more control and less power off the ground. The problem with those tactics is that not only did they not work against Federer, but while he was adjusting his game and going through the growing pains the rest of the field caught up to him. So instead of being able to beat everyone except the best player on the planet, Roddick regressed and fell back into the top 20, never regaining the form that got him to the top spot.
Unfortunately, it seems Federer may be headed in that same direction. He switched racquets two weeks ago, and then entered two smaller tournaments that he would normally skip, obviously wanting to get some practice in with his new frame. He made it to the semifinals of a tournament in Germany, losing to a player ranked 63rd in the world. He then entered a tournament in his home country of Switzerland, losing his first match to a player ranked 52nd in the world. The Roger Federer of old would never lose to those two players. He was slated to play in a tournament next week in Montreal, which is a mandatory event for the top players in the world to enter, but pulled out on Friday. He didn't state a reason for the withdrawal, and although he has had some back issues throughout the season, I've got to believe it has something to do with his lack of matches with his new racquet.
When you make a drastic change, whether it is a change of tactics or a change of equipment, it's a sign that you've lost confidence in yourself. When Roddick changed his playing style, the other players noticed and took advantage of his lack of confidence, which led to him never regaining his spot at the top of the game. When Federer changed racquets, the 52nd and 63rd ranked players in the world noticed and took advantage of his lack of confidence. Unless he can figure things out quickly, the end of Roger Federer's storied career will come very soon. And he'll have 8 square inches to blame for its rapid descent.