The first thing you noticed when Roger Federer played Andy Murray on Wednesday at the Australian Open was that his headband and wristband were bright red. So were his shoes. It took a minute to realize why that would stand out.
Here’s why: Roger Federer was playing in color again. For the past few years, he has been in black and white, playing an obsolete style with obsolete equipment, stubbornly in denial about what was going on around him.
It was sort of sad, really. He always had some excuse for his decline. I covered the match where it first should have been hammered into his head, a loss to Robin Soderling at the French Open. Federer blamed the weather for that one, as if Soderling were playing under a different sky.
That was 2010. But now Federer has finally faced facts. He’s 32 years old. He has lost a step. And the sport, thanks mostly to modern equipment he has refused to use, has moved past him. Add all of that up, and despite his incredible talents he was on the verge of becoming irrelevant.
That’s what was exciting about his 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-3 win over Murray to advance to the semifinals Friday against Rafael Nadal. Federer has finally — finally! — realized what’s happening. And he finally — FINALLY! — has committed to using a new racket. Not only that, but also he has committed to an attacking style that can take advantage of what that new, bigger racket can do. He hired former champion Stefan Edberg as his coach to help with that.
Being real: Federer isn’t going to be No. 1 again. I doubt he’ll beat Nadal on Friday, too. But more important, in his first major with the new racket, it’s already clear that Federer will be able to win another major or two.
Now, it seems ridiculous to say that the biggest problem for the guy who might be the best player of all time is that he was using the wrong tennis racket. Really, the problem wasn’t so much Federer’s racket as his brain. It was a mentality, and aggressiveness, that he couldn’t accept.
The new lightweight, stiff rackets, with polyester strings, simply give players so much power and control that Federer was putting himself at too much of a disadvantage. Power hitters with far less talent than he still has were able to push him backward and he couldn’t fight back.
He just couldn’t accept that the thing that had made him so great wasn’t going to keep working. It was an issue of human nature, really. People do things the "right way" and even when times change, they can get stuck in time.
Until now, Federer was still using roughly the same racket Pete Sampras and Jim Courier used. And even Sampras said after he retired that he should have used a more modern racket.
I once confronted Federer about it in Cincinnati. He calmly said that it’s important to stay on top of the game and that he’s always trying out new things. But, he said, he needed a longer stretch of time away from tournaments to practice and make a change.
Sources told me Federer’s own people were pleading with him for years to modernize. He was about to do it in 2009, but then he won the French Open, thanks to Nadal getting hurt. So Federer didn’t see the point anymore.
How many majors did that decision cost him? It might have cost him his spot in history, too. To me, Nadal has passed Federer as the greatest ever.
Federer tried to switch last year, but when he lost a few matches, he switched back for the U.S. Open, which left him with zero chance of winning. Now, in his first major with a modern racket?
He is in a very real position to win.
So it hasn’t been an easy process to get Federer here. But you could see the change in him last week in an interview in Australia on ESPN.
He was asked if his goal is to move back to No. 1 this year. He’s now No. 6.
"I’m not sure about playing enough to chase the world No. 1 ranking right now," he said. "And anyway, that would be, for me, too far-fetched right now because the end of the year has been so difficult for me that, ‘Why am I thinking of world No. 1 if I can’t even get to the quarters anymore of a Grand Slam?’ "
That might have been the first time Federer acknowledged that things were slipping.
His new racquet — apparently some version of the Wilson Blade — is bigger but not one of the more stiff ones. But it will still make a huge difference if Federer commits to attacking.
Through the first week of the Australian, he was attacking, but that was easy: He was never in trouble.
That’s why the Murray match was so important. Murray isn’t a power player and is coming off back surgery. So he wasn’t at his best. But he did pressure Federer, who kept attacking anyway. He came to the net 66 times.
Ironically, coming to the net is not exactly the modern approach. It’s almost a lost art. It’s from Edberg’s time. But that doesn’t really matter. Federer dipped into the past to find a modern mentality.
He’s moving forward again.
Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.