Federer hiccup is fun talking point

After a long while it is Roger Federer's brain which is confused, he is the fellow second guessing, writes Rohit Brijnath.

So rarely does Roger Federer fade, slip up, err, lose, that when he does, twice in a row, to a fellow not named Nadal, not on clay but hardcourt, well, then, we almost have a license to overreact. This is like Warney bowling an entire over at the wrong length and incorrect line. It defies the normal sequence of things. Indeed, last year Federer lost five matches in all, in 2005 only four. Now it is two defeats in March. And Federer never loses in March. He has won Indian Wells the past three years, Miami the last two years. What does a fellow do with so much free time now?

Not that, of course, Federer's double tumble against Guillermo Canas isn't delicious. In tennis locker rooms, where Federer's domination has ensured that next to ranking lists are pinned up phone numbers of therapists, jubilation must have been unleashed. After a long while, it is Federer's brain which is confused, he is the fellow second guessing.

Sport, however briefly, can be a wonderful equaliser.

On very casual scrutiny, Canas, who looks like a well-fed artist but has the mad devotion of a marathoner, does not appear a Federer slayer. He does not so much hit the ball as merely hunt it down and return it; if he turned a boxer he looks the type to last 15 rounds and ask for more. He surprised Federer with the odd winner, but he is more a human ball machine, in whose bloodstream two years ago were found rather embarrassing substances.

The Argentines run forever. Which is astonishing. Then many (four in recent times) get caught ingesting performance-enhancing drugs. Then nobody is astonished any more. Traces of a diuretic were found in Canas in 2005; he was banned for two years but after claiming it was part of flu medication his punishment was reduced to 16 months. Either way he is back and bouncing.

Beyond the statistical anomaly (two hardcourt losses for Federer in a row,7-5, 6-2 in Indian Wells and 7-6, 2-6, 7-6 in Miami), and the amputation of a streak (chasing Guillermo Vilas' 46-match-streak, Federer fell at 41), and the mild coincidence that the losses arrived just as an attacking Rafael Nadal made his own hardcourt statement by winning Indian Wells, lie two interesting points.

The first is that Federer, when he falls, seems to do so to a type of player, a particular breed. One-sided players such as Roddick and Blake (forehand driven as they are) lack the roundness of game to bother him and are brushed aside. Although Safin has the armoury he lacks the mental resilience, for Federer never goes easily.

But in the past Federer has twice lost three matches in a row to Lleyton Hewitt, could not win any of his first five matches against David Nalbandian and was troubled all last year by Nadal. All three players are quick, two-sided and stubborn, at their best able to resist and absorb Federer's shot-making, run his genius down.

Eventually even Federer, when asked to play an extra shot, when finding his forehand is hiccuping, can be frustrated into error, can become, as he did against Canas, briefly confused that what he usually does well isn't working. Canas ran like the wind and forever against Federer and it worked.

Of course, after Hewitt was victorious in seven of their first nine meetings, Federer has triumphed in all their last nine meetings. Similarly he has dismissed Nalbandian in eight of their last nine encounters. Once mentally he is able to right himself, and tactically sorts out the puzzle, then it's sayonara. Canas knows retribution is coming.

Against Canas, in Miami, Federer was effective when he commanded the net and it is interesting that a man can own, and be master of, this second option and not even always use it. Volleys helped rush Canas and put a full stop to points, but as Federer admitted: "I wish I could use it more, but conditions are so slow and you can see these guys run down every ball. They pass in two turns. They first hit it down below (the net) and they pass you after that usually. It makes it hard to get to the net, so I would make like a little bit faster courts."

The second aspect concerns Federer's mortality. An overreacting media is usually faster to the draw than Wild Bill Hickock, claiming athletes are "great'' or "gone'' usually before their time. Federer is many, many years from gone: Sampras was No. 1 for six straight years, the Swiss only three so far. His legend is only growing.

But there will arrive a time when he is still the best yet not as dominant, when he claims Grand Slam titles yet loses more in a year than he does now, when all fear him but perhaps not as much.

And so every time Federer loses matches he shouldn't, the eyebrows don't quite rise but they gently twitch. In the first match against Canas he was simply off. No big deal. It happens. Even to Federer. Like last year against Andy Murray.

In the second encounter, he let the first set go, yet was up a break in the third, with four chances for a double break and still lost. For all his man-out-shopping demeanour, Federer is under pressure when he plays, it's part of being a great player. But against Canas he looked under pressure.

In a way this minor stumble is no bad thing. The tour is about to dive into the clay season, and a hungrier, irritated, bruised Federer is a terrific thought. Here he cannot afford any frailty, his senses must be heightened, for despite what Rod Laver may kindly say about Federer's greatness, only victory in the sand will elevate the Swiss completely above the Australian and that American.

And in the sand, Nadal awaits.

A Nadal, who when asked, "Is it possible that this year Roger Federer would win Roland Garros but Rafael would win Wimbledon?", replied: "If you have any paper and I can sign, I gonna sign."

It's a switch even Federer would sign up to.