Shanghai Masters is next chance for aging Roger Federer to rebound

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Barely an hour after Roger Federer suffered that heartbreaking loss to rival Novak Djokovic in July's epic Wimbledon final, he was asked how he would process and rebound from failing to convert two match points and losing the historic match.

"[It will be] similar to getting broken when serving for the match," Federer said. "You take it on your chin. You move on. You try to forget, try to take the good things out of this match."

Federer went on to compare the agonizingly close struggle to that other sensational Wimbledon match: his 2009 loss to Rafael Nadal in what some call the greatest match ever.

"I will look back at it and think, 'Well, it's not that bad after all.' For now it hurts, and it should. [But] I think it's a mindset. I'm very strong at being able to move on because I don't want to be depressed about actually an amazing tennis match."

Like many brave words, those have proven difficult to back up. Since taking the Wimbledon loss, Federer stumbled out in the third round at one of his favorite tournaments (the Cincinnati Masters, where he is a seven-time champ), and he failed at the quarterfinal hurdle at the US Open. The holder of 20 Grand Slam titles has an excellent opportunity to reset starting Monday at the Shanghai Masters in a city that has always been kind to him.

"Obviously that [Wimbledon final] was a rough beat," ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said in an interview. "It's always rough to come back from a ridiculously rough beat, especially at 38."

Gilbert touches on a theory that the Wimbledon loss had an uncharacteristic, devastating impact on Federer's confidence. Could it have left the Swiss star with an emotional hangover that a younger player might have more easily sloughed off? After all, didn't Federer admit at the US Open that for days after that Wimbledon loss, even during his family camping trip, he had "flashbacks" to the match?

"Here's the whole thing with Federer fans and pundits," Gilbert said. "What they expect, it's unrealistic. To me, the story of Wimbledon isn't about how he was crushed by that loss but about how insanely well he's still playing. Fed had two match points. He's 38, and there he is, still right in the thick of things."

Jimmy Arias, a Tennis Channel commentator who is also the director of the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, doesn't buy into the hangover theory, but, like Gilbert, he said an older player might not rebound from so painful a loss as readily as a youngster.

"I can't ascertain from just two tournaments [Cincinnati and the US Open] how much [Federer's] level may have dropped, if it dropped at all," Arias said. "When I saw him at the US Open, he was still pretty good. If Fed was 34 or younger, I'd say the loss probably would not impact him. But at 38? Who knows?"

Arias added: "At some point, the end has to come for everyone. Maybe this was the catalyst."

Federer has denied that his failure at Wimbledon influenced his brief appearance on the summer circuit. At Cincinnati, he won a match, then was knocked off the court by No. 35-ranked 21-year old Andrey Rublev. Federer made the second week at the US Open, but he was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Grigor Dimitrov.

"I know people read into it," Federer said after the loss to Dimitrov, referring to the hangover theory. He vigorously denied that his mind was back at Wimbledon, stewing over his missed opportunities. "They [fans] think all that [psychological] stuff. But that is definitely not the reason why I lost tonight. I was ready to go, try my best. It wasn't enough. It's purely here."

Shanghai is likely to be a compelling third test of how Federer has recovered from his Wimbledon trials. He won two Masters singles titles as well as the prestigious year-end ATP Tour championships in two of the four years (2005-08) the event was played in the Chinese city.

Federer's most recent victory on those outdoor hard courts occurred in 2017, when he extended an improbable winning streak over Nadal to five matches, crushing his career rival in the final 6-4, 6-3. Federer said he feels nothing but good vibes and has only great memories in Shanghai.

"[The tournament] is a priority for me in my schedule," Federer told reporters after that win over Nadal. His triumph was all the sweeter because it was part of his return to the elite level after a year (2016) during which he abruptly left the tour for the entire fall to regain his fitness and undergo a career makeover. "I always manage my schedule throughout the year [so] that I can also peak during Shanghai, so it's nice to be back, and having played so well, it's great."

Federer turned 36 in 2017, but he won 52 of 57 matches, collecting seven titles, including two majors (the Australian Open and Wimbledon). Those accomplishments will enter the lore and legend of the game. But a lot has changed since Federer's superhero year. Most notably, Djokovic emerged from a mysterious period of discontent and problems with his right elbow.

Djokovic, nursing his elbow, was eliminated in the fourth round of the 2018 Australian Open, clearing the way for Federer to win the first major of the year. Federer has won six titles since then but no majors and just one Masters (Miami Open, 2019). Meanwhile, resurgent Djokovic and Nadal picked up where Federer left off. They've swept 50% of the 16 Masters titles and all seven Grand Slam tournaments played since early 2018.

"These guys are really pushing each other," Arias said. "All three of them right now are playing to be the GOAT, but Federer has an age disadvantage. Losing that [Wimbledon] final had to hurt. A win there would have solidified that lead in major titles."

Federer has 20 Grand Slam titles to Nadal's 19 and Djokovic's 16.

Another change since Federer last won Shanghai: Nadal is flourishing again, despite having to withdraw from Shanghai with a left hand injury. The men split their two most recent matches (both at majors), and Nadal is likely to end the year at No. 1. He's 33 and hard-used, but this already has been one of the best years of his career.

Federer has created an intriguing template for aging players, using a diminished schedule (but an undiminished, sophisticated training regimen) to remain fresh and healthy. He has played 17 tournaments this year, which is -- surprisingly -- one more than either Nadal or Djokovic played. But it's 10 fewer than hard-charging Stefanos Tsitsipas played and eight fewer than No. 4 Daniil Medvedev played.

Playing a reduced schedule is a great strategy, provided you keep going deep at tournaments. Federer has managed that brilliantly in 2019.

"I'm not worried about what Fed is not getting [titles-wise]," Gilbert said. "All you can ask of yourself is that physically and mentally you're right there, and Fed has been. The guy's going to finish No. 3 in the world at age 38. You look at something like Wimbledon, and at some level you need to understand. Stuff happens. Fed was unlucky."

But even before Wimbledon, Federer had his share of anxious moments as he walked the tightrope of his thin schedule. He had close calls in a number of three-set matches relatively early in tournaments. At Halle, Federer needed a strong week on grass to prepare for Wimbledon. He won the event (for the 10th time) but only after surviving two successive, excruciatingly close matches early.

Federer skipped the Canada Masters this year, leaving just Cincinnati as his US Open tune-up event. He was upset after playing just one match. In New York a few weeks later, he lost the first set in his first two matches. Although he recovered nicely, Dimitrov eliminated him in the quarterfinals.

The field at Shanghai will be loaded, now that Andy Murray has accepted a wild card. Djokovic's US Open was even more disappointing than Federer's because he had to quit the tournament due to a left shoulder injury. Djokovic entered this past week's Japan Open, in which he has been winning matches and has reported that his shoulder is fine. He will arrive in Shanghai with matches under his belt, a luxury Federer felt he couldn't afford.

Federer has lots to worry about before he can begin to contemplate a chance to avenge his Wimbledon loss to Djokovic. His game isn't the reliable, pressure-proof vehicle it once was. He can no longer conjure the ambition that drove him like a tailwind for so many of his younger years. Federer has to contend with those inexplicable losses that are an earmark of age. But through it all, he has been able to keep himself within striking distance of all the big titles.

Federer gave an inkling of how and why he has been able to do that after he won his fourth-round match against David Goffin at the US Open: "It's so worthwhile to stay there and see if you can go back to these emotions. To see if you can do it at a later stage in your career and be a totally different person, almost a different player, 20 years later. It's quite exciting, actually."

That doesn't sound like a man brought to his knees by a depressing loss. Federer has the opportunity in Shanghai to demonstrate his resilience, 38 and all.