COMMENTARY | One of the biggest stories in tennis last winter was Roger Federer's plan to play a reduced schedule in 2013.
No doubt this was bittersweet news to the legions of fans that support the Swiss Maestro around the world.
The greatest fear related to this announcement was the required acceptance of the subsequent steps in such a progression. Playing less in 2013 foreshadowed a far greater nightmare for fans of this extraordinary player -- the understanding that there would one day come a time when Federer wouldn't be playing at all.
However, embedded in these dreaded realizations was a vibrant silver lining. By playing fewer events, it wasn't difficult to imagine that Federer might be fresher in future Slams, giving the legend his absolute best opportunity to add more titles to his already incredible haul.
Theoretically, less matches would also translate to less wear and tear on Federer's body, which could actually extend his career. A clear tradeoff was on the table -- less Federer now in exchange for more Federer later.
Unfortunately, for Roger Federer, his team and fans of amazing tennis, the plan for 2013 has thus far netted few positive returns. And in comparison to last year, it's been almost a completely failed experiment.
Playing a far lighter schedule in 2013, Federer failed to qualify for a single Slam final through the first three-quarters of the year. The last time that happened, George W. Bush was still in his first term as president of the United States. This year, Federer also experienced his earliest exit from a Grand Slam tournament since 2003, recently losing in the second round at Wimbledon.
These poor results illustrate that Federer has experienced the exact opposite outcome he and his team were hoping for. Playing less in order to be more prepared for the Slams has actually produced some of Federer's all-time worst results in the majors. And rather than appearing fresh at the world's biggest venues, Federer has often appeared uncomfortable and physically limited.
With the improved play of Andy Murray and the resurgence of Juan Martin del Potro, the remainder of the season on hard court doesn't look like a cakewalk, either. Throw Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal into the mix and suddenly the last quarter of the tennis season looks like a rerun of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome -- only the strong will survive.
It's impossible to know exactly how Federer and his team feel about these on-court developments in 2013, but recent activity from their camp suggests that the original plan has been scrapped -- and stamped on.
Surprising many, Federer decided to enter several small tournaments in Europe after his early exit at Wimbledon. That alone is in direct contradiction to his stated goal at the beginning of the year. Playing extra tournaments certainly does not align with playing a reduced schedule.
On top of that, it's been widely reported that Federer has been experimenting with a new racket frame. Observers have noted its wider head, which would theoretically allow for more power and a greater margin of error.
These adjustments suggest that Federer and his team are scrambling to find new solutions in order to salvage the year on hard court in the United States. It's hard to say what other tricks might be up his team's sleeve, but they will likely need some powerful talismans in order to achieve the results they're seeking.
With 2013 dwindling to a close, there isn't much time for Federer and his team to identify the best course of action. Steps that may include the return to a full schedule, the permanent use of a new racket frame, or some combination of these and other new tactics.
Although their efforts may ultimately allow Federer tap into his old form, it's clear he will never again play with the same effortless brilliance we witnessed over the last ten years. This is true because effort, and lots of it, will now be needed to simply get him back to that level.
Certain realities also suggest that Federer's current struggles may fall beyond just tactics and training. In the last 15 Grand Slam events, Federer made the final round just three times. In the 15 Slams before that, he made the final 14 times.
As difficult as it is to accept, it's pretty clear Federer hasn't been his usual fantastic self for quite some time.
Like it or not, a reduced schedule or new racket frame weren't ever going to stop the inevitable decline that comes with aging. The best Federer could have hoped was to slow Father Time down -- and the window of opportunity for that may be closing soon.
Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewProchnow.
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