Saturday, May 10, 2008

Diagnosing Federer

One of the pitfalls of being a shrink is that it is sometimes hard to resist the impulse to diagnose people we have not even met. Of course we are trained not to do this and formally we don’t, but informally we do this all the time. It is an occupational hazard, no different from the way an expert carpenter’s eye will scan the fit of the moldings of a home to which he is newly invited or a skilled seamstress would be the first to notice that you are missing a button on your shirt. It is an automatic process that happens so rapidly that the diagnostician may truly remain unaware that he or she has completed a full body scan and has arrived at a conclusion.

And so in response to meeting new people who say to me, “aha, I bet you figured me out already”, I honestly reply, “no I have not, you have to pay me to do that”. And I am, at these moments, telling the literal truth. And because, with experience, we learn how to train the analytic mind to turn off, in those moments I listen to and honor the person’s not fully verbalized request not to be analyzed. And I switch off.

I remember an incident that was at the time so painful that it has helped me learn to keep some control over the diagnosing beast within. A friend from school and I had decided to keep in touch by writing to each other periodically. When next I actually saw her, some three or so years later, she told me that she had enjoyed receiving my letters because “it cracked me up the way you would go on and on analyzing things”. Ouch. My letters had functioned as entertainment, not for their content but for their analytic tendencies. My hurt at her derision was the beginning of a growing awareness that analysis is what I do, it’s what I am good at – but I had better learn to control it (she says, as she proceeds to dissect and analyze).

Which is all by way of saying that I was in full analysis mode as I watched the Federer-Stepanek match last night. Rome is a difficult tournament and it would have been important for Federer to win it. And the fact that Nadal got thrown out early by the likes of Ferrero meant that Federer was actually favored to win.

Anticipating the match, I told myself that Federer would have to watch out for Stepanek’s drop shots. They can be lethal. Stepanek is the master of frustrating an opponent. He is also the unlikely suitor and repeat fiancĂ© of some of the most beautiful female tennis players – so he does things right both on and off the court if you know what I mean.

Stepanek seemed skinnier to me as he danced around the baseline in preparation for the warm up. He seemed more sinewy, as if he has put on muscle in all the right places and lost what little fat he was carrying. And it was the raw and dominating power that he produced that seems to have caught Federer by surprise. I certainly wasn’t expecting it. Gone were the slicey serves and fluttery drop shots. Instead Radek was hitting some booming serves and setting up powerful one-two shots that left Federer flat-footed.

As always, Federer had moments of gain. There were moments when I would start breathing again, such as at the onset of the first tiebreak, and I would start thinking, ‘OK Roger, you got the break, now just hold on to it.’ And the next thing I knew, it was gone, erased by one of Stepanek’s Roddick-like forehands. I was stunned. So was Roger. At the start of the second set, again Federer got the lead. But this time I watched mute, afraid that it would just as easily be taken back. And it was. And I am gutted.

In his post-match interview, Federer acknowledged that Stepanek was hard to play because “he is always changing up his game”. I agree. But Stepanek did not change up his game during this match. He changed up his game before the match. He came to the encounter with a definite plan to beat Roger not with slicey serves and fluttery drop shots, but with sheer power and aggression. It is a formula that keeps working against Roger, and lately it has been working too well. This is Roger’s sixth loss for the year. And except for his loss to Nadal last week, all of his losses so far this year have been to players who never in their wildest dreams ever thought that they could beat him.

My diagnosis is a lack of confidence. This is not a physical problem. It is not a fitness problem. It is not due to glandular fever. It is purely mental. Roger no longer feels invincible. His opponents sense this and are circling around him like wolves, moving ever closer to the kill. And the more often he is beaten, the more his self-confidence drains away.

One of the reasons I am comfortable analyzing Federer is because he is so prone to analyze himself. He doesn’t give the media the defensive sarcastic witticisms that Roddick produces during his post-match interviews. Roger is all honest insight and awareness. So I was not surprised to hear him say after this match, “Usually when I have a lead I don’t let it go, so it’s quite disappointing. I played so poorly on the big points.”

Stepanek on the other hand has never been known for any analytic abilities. He is better known for being the somewhat unattractive man who gets beautiful women to say yes to his proposals of marriage. So he just cut to the chase in his post-match interview and told it like it was, “Everybody is hungry. Two players can’t win all the tournaments.”


Sue Doe-Nim said...


I'm fairly certain you can blame it on the bad hair.

But to each their own.

tennischick said...

that's as good a diagnosis as any. lol.