Melbourne: In the obsessive, superstitious, fine-tuned realm of tennis equipment, the best players hope to fiddle least with two main pieces: their shoes and their racquets.
Their racquets are not dissimilar from their significant others. They are constant companions, life partners, an extension of the players themselves.
There are periods of bliss and uncertainty and strife. They are nicknamed and cared for and, on occasion, cursed.
Thus Roger Federer’s decision to switch not only coaches but racquets this season reverberated throughout the professional tennis world, for it was radical and rare and seemed to indicate that even the great Federer now acknowledged he needed to change in order to survive.
Federer long dominated tennis with a racquet on which the surface area covered 90 square inches. It served as his magic wand until one year when it did not.
That year was 2013, the first year that Federer did not advance to a Grand Slam final since 2002.
Most elite men’s players use racquets with a surface area between 98 and 100 square inches, and here Federer decided he would join them, in order to beat them once again.
The process lasted roughly a year. It involved prototypes and test tournaments and a team of racquet technicians that met Federer in Switzerland.
No less than the remainder of Federer’s career hinged on the outcome of their collective effort.
Federer tried the larger racquet last summer, but it did it not feel perfect, which meant it did not feel right. He went back to the smaller frame for the United States Open and fell in the fourth round.
The technicians continued to make changes. They ended up with two prototypes. Federer practised with both last month and picked one to start this season.
The change also highlighted Federer’s nature, his willingness to evolve. He considered using a larger racket for years, but clung to a smaller one like Pete Sampras, who stuck with an 85-inch model but later said he regretted not having tried something bigger. It was one of his few regrets.
Among the other top men’s players, Andy Murray is said to use a 98-inch racquet head, while Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are said to prefer the 100-inch version. The argument for the larger racquets largely comes down to physics: bigger sweet spot, bigger margin for error.
Federer, of course, is an older player. He will lose some speed and some movement and with that some precision. The theory is the larger racquet will help him compensate.
“I don’t view it as a sign of weakness,” Justin Gimelstob, the Tennis Channel analyst, said. “I view at as part necessity, part reality. It’s Darwinism. Adapt or fall behind. And Roger is definitely the most rational, conscious, flexible champion we’ve ever had.”
Whether Federer sticks with the new racquet will be, in part, psychological.
Darren Cahill, another analyst, said the key will be not what shots Federer hits well but whether he understands what happened with the shots he missed. Say Federer hits three perfect forehands with the new racquet, then puts the same spin on the ball and watches it sail six feet long. That, Cahill said, would “be enough to give you a sleepless night.”
Cahill added: “The challenge is going to be sticking through those low moments. When it’s not going right, it’s pretty easy to get a bit depressed and go back to what you know.”
It all went right on Thursday, as Federer conquered the heat wave and slid into the third round. Again, he nodded to Teddy Roosevelt and carried a big (or bigger) stick. Again, it worked, even as Federer acknowledged the adjustment was ongoing.
One cannot, of course, become comfortable with a new racquet overnight.