Does size matter?
Sports Illustrated tennis writer Jon L. Wertheim wrote the excellent book Strokes of Genius about the titanic battle of the Wimbledon final 2008 and since then I’ve followed his writing on twitter and on SI.com and enjoyed and agreed on much of it.
His latest “mailbag” post discusses the interesting question of what would happen to Federer’s game if he changed from his Wilson BLX Tour with its 90 inch head to a bigger racket to increase his sweetspot and margin for error. I’ve always been a strong believer of this change and I’m happy that I’m not alone in this. Five inches more could do the trick. But below you’ll see the Q&A.
Again, you mention Federer shanking balls with his “small-framed” racket. He’s been playing with basically the same head size for all of these years. Do you and other critics really think that changing to a larger size racket right now is going to drastically improve things for him? I think it’s like Derek Jeter changing up his swing during the offseason this year. I remember reading a great article from your colleague Joe Posnanski saying that Jeter changing his swing this late may improve his game a little, but the inevitable is coming. And by the way, Jeter isn’t doing so hot so far. I think the same goes for Federer; his best days are behind him. What’s your rationale for saying that Fed needs to switch to a larger frame, and do you really think it will make that much of a difference?
— Kobi Sonoyama, Sacramento, CA
Someone asked me recently, “What are the big stories in tennis these days?” I led with the emergence of Djokovic. Sadly, my second topic was the decline of Federer. He is, of course, being held to the absurd standards he himself set. But by now only those in serious denial must acknowledge that Federer is not the player he once was. Last week’s loss to Jurgen Melzer was only the latest indignity. While we recently offered a glass-half-full stat and pointed out that Federer was 53-1 against players outside the top five, we now come with a glass-half-empty stat: in 2011 he has yet to beat a top-10 opponent. I still think it’s entirely within the range of possibility that he wins another Major. But time is finally doing its cruel dance.
The question becomes: how does Federer confront this opponent? He is well within his rights to concede to nature, as Kobi implies, and go gracefully into that good night. But, the same way we buy dentures or color our hair or get an artificial hip, why not fight back a little and try to reverse the aging process? If Federer chooses this option, realistically what he can do? He’s not going to emulate Jeter and tinker much with the mechanics at this point. He can make a few personnel moves and rely on his team, as his hometown paper seems to suggest. (Thanks, unofficial Basel correspondent Sally D.)
But, ultimately, he takes the court alone.
Or he can change his equipment. Like many of you, I’ll note that Pete Sampras claims he could have won a few more Majors had he been less stubborn and switched to a larger racket later in his career. But in Federer’s case it seems particularly apt. He’s not only shanking balls at an alarming clip — another missing tennis stat — but players are now pushing him around the court taking big cuts like never before. If Federer can switch to a frame that would give him a bigger sweet spot and give him a cushion even when he doesn’t strike it perfectly, it would help him immensely. As it stands now, when Federer hits the ball cleanly, he’s as good as ever. But when he’s off, there’s no margin for error. And when you’re losing a match and knowing that you’ll pay dearly for a miss, the racket — as reader Eric Walsh put it — “senses your fear and spins out on you.”
Federer could quit tomorrow and go down as the GOAT, as far as I’m concerned. But as long as he’s still around, as long as he’s still supremely talented, why wouldn’t he give himself the best chance possible to make one more run?