ROGER MANGLES HIS RACKET BUT CAN’T GET NO RELIEF

Roger Federer with Bud's book, which Bud presented to him after his win over Roddick.

Roger Federer with Bud’s book, which Bud presented to him after his win over Roddick.

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – Zing went the strings of his racket – along with the frame, his composure and hopes of reversing the reverse trend in his career. Can we be talking about Roger Federer, the paragon, clearly the most beloved player in today’s game??

Afraid so, folks. He has lost his way, and it’s no fun to watch him unravel as he did against Novak Djokovic in the semis of the seaside convention called the Sony Ericsson Open. It didn’t end with a bang – nor a whimper, although there were tears.

The bang heard ‘round the world, or at least anywhere within TV range occurred in the second game of the final set when Roger did his Marat Safin impersonation, mangling his instrument against the court’s purple pavement. This stroke left the racket as twisted as Roger’s route lately. He was in the midst of something unheard of in the land of Federer – a streak of 7 lost games on the way to a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 defeat.

Sometimes wrecking a racket is a catharsis. Did this make him feel better? “Not really,” he said. “I was just frustrated…it’s just a natural thing I did.” Well, it didn’t cost him anything. The rackets are free. He gets plenty to endorse them.

Shocked, the crowd of 12,000 at Crandon Park backfired with fierce whistles and boos . But then they tried to rouse and encourage him when he finished losing the game to fall behind, 0-3. That didn’t help: he dropped serve for the fourth straight time.

Marvelous monarch butterfly dress designed by Mexican Pineda Covalin was the piece de resistance at this fashion show.

Marvelous monarch butterfly dress designed by Mexican Pineda Covalin was the piece de resistance at this fashion show.

Djokovic’s faithful chanted, “NO – VAK! NO – VAK!” while shaking Serbian flags. Roger was shakier than the flags, shanking at least 10 groundies, adding up 35 unforced errors. Wind was bothersome, but the same for both of them, he said. I haven’t seen many such dazed Federer performances – who has? – but this was the worst.

The pressure – “there’s not a whole lot,” he insists – is obviously weighing on him heavily. After more than 4 years as dictator – he won this title in 2005-06 – he finds the peons catching up and savaging him. Since the U.S. Open triumph he has captured but one title (Basel, a lesser event) in eight tournaments, hardly a Federerian pace.

The only girlfriend he’s ever had, Mirka Vavrinec, informs him he’s going to be a father. And the European clay court circuit looms with that ogre, Rafa Nadal, as the gatekeeper. Am I giving up on Roger? Hardly. Not on this stylish shotmaker of 27, one of the all-time greats regardless of what befalls him from now on.

But how does he stop the unraveling?

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