Roger Federer

A Fed For All Seasons

This is a guest post from Luke Gilbey who blogs at Tennis Niche. As the name suggests, Luke tries to capture the ‘niche' audience of dedicated tennis fans who want in-depth technical analysis of matches and individual players. In his blog he likes to discuss popular topics but aims to present a unique take on them. This one takes an interesting look at Roger's recent troubles against the big hitters of the sport.

During his reign as chief Alpha Male on the ATP circuit (2004-2008), Roger Federer showed incredible consistency in defeating the power merchants of the tour, his unique set of skills proving the perfect foil for overcoming his big serving, hard hitting opponents. Robin Soderling, Andy Roddick (in his earlier, attacking days), Tomas Berdych, Fernando Gonzalez and James Blake were helpless victims of Federer’s dispassionate dismantling, made flustered and frustrated as their big serves were returned deep in the court and their powerful groundstrokes cruelly directed against them.

In recent years Federer has suffered an increasing number of defeats to this particular type of power player. Since his victory at Wimbledon in 2009, Federer has lost at Grand Slam level to Juan Martin Del Potro (US Open 2009), Robin Soderling (French Open 2010), Tomas Berdych (Wimbledon 2010) and Jo Wilfried Tsonga (Wimbledon 2011), in addition to defeats at Master Series level to Berdych (Miami 2010 & Cincinnati 2011) and Tsonga (Canada 2010).

While the above four players are hardly identical, they are all tall, naturally attacking baseliners who are not especially comfortable when put on the defensive. Federer’s chief problem has been to wrestle the initiative from these players and consistently put them on the defensive.

With a slight loss in foot speed, his brilliant wrong-footing shots on the run became less frequent, and his opponents more comfortable in standing on top of the baseline and smashing groundstrokes from corner to corner. Likewise, his return of serve seems marginally worse; while his skills of anticipation are no doubt still astounding, his reaction speed will inevitably slow as he gets older.

This is not to say that Federer was suddenly over the hill and losing to any big serving giant who had just got a hold of a shiny new Babolat racket and a blood thirsty forehand to go with it. The margin between victory and defeat at this level is small, and it only took a small drop in Federer’s level for him to start suffering the occasional loss.

All great things must end, and Federer’s gradual descent from the clouds of tennis divinity has been marked by the loss of his stranglehold over this mould of player. To attribute one primary cause to this trend would be an oversimplification; there are various technical, tactical, physical and mental factors to consider in Federer’s relative decline. Chief among these aspects is his increasing failure to praise the initiative from his opponent and dictate rallies.

Federer’s five set loss to Juan Martin Del Potro at the 2009 US Open is perhaps the most prominent example, an encounter on which many conclusions have been drawn. Context is particularly important in this case, as an analysis of their matches can easily produce wildly different conclusions.

Firstly, Federer is seven years Del Potro’s senior, and his commanding victories pre- US Open speak to both Del Potro’s inexperience and Federer’s deathly ability to neuter the Tandil giant and his power game. Conversely, Del Potro’s lone victory over Federer at the US Open remains a powerful indicator that Federer had begun to lose his divine gift to utterly nullify power players.

Some point to their US open encounter as a fluke, an anomaly which was proven thus by Federer’s subsequent demolitions of Del Potro. This view fails to account for the major wrist injury sustained by Del Potro in 2010, which robbed him of his confidence and form, which he is yet to regain despite an apparent full physical recovery.

Put in this context, their encounter at the US Open was of a rampaging, on form Del Potro against a Federer who was gradually approaching the end of his peak, and perhaps slightly complacent in the match up owing to his previous dominance of the Argentine. This provides a solid basis for analysing the way in which Del Potro was able to come from a set down and defeat Federer, winning his maiden grand slam in the process.

Federer started the match strongly, pulling his less mobile opponent in every direction with his variety of shot; a series floated slices followed by a blistering forehand; vicious short angled slices, forcing his opponent into uncomfortable territory at the net before finishing the point with a signature passing shot.

This was Federer implementing his tried and tested formula of dispatching powerful but less agile opponents, which he had used often to catch far bigger prey in the past, and it gave him the first set, 6-3. Having broken early in the second, Federer served for a two set advantage at 5-4. He was broken by two Del Potro passing shots, perhaps underestimating the Argentine’s movement to his stronger forehand wing. A series of minor strategic errors, they proved crucial as both men held serve once more before Del Potro took the tiebreak to level up the match at one set all.

Into the third set, Federer quickly regained his lead, with a horrible Del Potro service game at 4-5 handing the Swiss the third set. At this point Federer had played a wonderful match, deserved his two set to one lead and could possibly even lament that he hadn’t served out the second set and finished the job quicker. What no one expected was for Del Potro, who without even a single previous Grand Slam final under his belt, would run away with the next two sets, 7-6 6-2, and earn his maiden Grand Slam.

Del Potro deserves the greatest praise, both for his determination in coming back from two sets to one and for the calmness he showed in dispatching an all-time great in Federer without any signs of nerves. However, it was Federer who had Del Potro in a stranglehold before he deviated from his master plan; Del Potro played his part in punishing Federer’s lapse with brilliant play and considerable courage.

Federer claimed the 2010 Australian Open but since has gone slam-less. His losses to Djokovic and Nadal at subsequent slams are attributable to an overall decline in play and also to the sheer quality of his opponent’s play, but losses to Berdych at Wimbledon and Miami, to Tsonga at Wimbledon and to Soderling at the French speak of a different problem.

That is, Federer had become tactically obstinate, unwilling to adapt his game plan in accordance with his diminished mobility. In the last six months Federer has improved in this regard, losing only to Djokovic and Nadal. He has seemingly regained some of his speed around the court, and appears more inclined to use his wide arsenal of shots, particularly on the backhand.

The last words on the matter are reserved for the great man himself, taken from his presser at Dubai, having beaten Murray in the final:

I think I was just confident. I was playing aggressive. I was focused. I didn't doubt my ability. I'm defending much better than maybe I was in the middle of last year where I felt like I couldn't come out of tough defensive positions anymore. I was able to sort of turn it around. It started midway through the French Open and then through Wimbledon, even though I ended up losing. But I felt like my game was very good. That's proved I was heading in the right direction. Now just have to keep it up.

– TN

Photo Credit: BossTweed

Luke Gilbey

Luke tries to capture the ‘niche’ audience of dedicated tennis fans who want in-depth technical analysis of matches and individual players as well as discussing popular topics but aims to present a unique take on them.

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  1. Hey Luke,

    Thanks for putting this together.

    It’s an interesting take on how he has struggled against the big hitters of the game over the last year or so.

    I definitely agree with all your analysis on how he lost the matches you have referenced. From how you have worded things I get the impression you think Federer will continue to struggle against these guys and there is really no way back?

    Aside from a couple of losses, he pretty much owns Del Po, Tsonga and Berdych in the H2H.

    I think that playing Del Potro on the fastest hard court on tour in Dubai would surely have exposed any kind of physical issues he has, or diminished mobility. But he showed no signs of any of that so I’m not sure I’m resigned to him continually struggling. But then again I’m a Fed fan, so I am bound to be slightly optimistic.

    In beating Tsgona, Berdych and Del Potro comfortably the last few times that leads me to believe the losses were purely tactical and as a result of stubbornness rather than him being a step slower.

    Here’s an interesting article on how Fed is playing with more confidence:

    I guess the ultimate test to see if he has overcome these hitters will be on a slower court. Where his opponent will still be able to hit through the court but Roger’s ground strokes won’t have the same zip on them. Playing someone like Berdych at the French Open would be a good example of that.

    1. I think Federer has turned things around somewhat, coming to terms with changes in his physical condition but more importantly becoming a bit more strategic with his point construction. The main problem is as you say tactical; against Del Potro in their US Open match I think the issue was Federer abandoning his varied approach and trying to outhit Del Potro. At Rotterdam & Dubai you saw he was a lot more measured, varying the play and waiting either for the court to open up or to get balls onto his forehand.

      But physical decline is inevitable and even a consummate professional like Federer will see his performance drop as he gets older.

      Very interested to see how he performs at IW & Miami – personally can’t see how he will beat Nadal if he gets as far as the Semi’s, especially after their match at Miami last year.

      1. Agree, to beat Nadal in Semi’s he will have to either a.) Play like JesusFed as he did at the o2. or b.) Totally try something out of the ordinary.

        Did you see his quote on how he thinks Nadal should be warned for abusing the time between points rule?

        I’ve always thought Federer needs to stop being so nice towards Nadal. Nadal would push Fed under a bus to win a slam title if he had to, about time Federer started thinking like that too.

  2. The only way Federer can defeat Nadal is not to let him settle in his game. Attack Nadal’s backhand with no end. Hit down the line shots and the slice bh. The break point conversion % will have to improve too! I don’t think Federer cannot be a nice guy, which I like about him but still doesn’t kiss Nadal’s ass. Everyone on the tour gets frustrated with his medical time-outs and 20+seconds on serves. Nothing is going to change. The ATP and ITF need Nadal for monetary gain.

  3. Haha, I don’t doubt Nadal would throw Fed under a bus, seems actually quite an accurate description of some of their recent matches! I know what you mean about Fed’s attitude against Nadal – he is always very placid, and compared to Nadal’s animated gesturing it can make it seem that Fed doesn’t really care when he’s getting beaten. I think he has a HUGE amount of pride, and maybe that is a bit of a block when he plays Rafa.

    I think the problem re. hitting up the line to Nadal’s backhand is that Fed’s single hander isn’t as reliable or consistent as Nadal’s so its not a game he’s willing to play (look at Djokovic – he can rally backhand’s down the line with Nadal and expect to come out on top 80% of the time). I found their AO semi so frustrating because, while I’m not a Fed ‘fan’, he was executing the perfect strategy for the first half an hour or so.

    I think the most ‘dangerous’ shot to play against Rafa is not cross court to his forehand side, but anything weak directed to his backhand side. Nadal is so alert to anything hit to that wing which he can run around and the resulting shot is usually even more destruction than his cross court forehand. So Fed’s best strategy for me has been when he has a clarity of thought on the backhand, and he either commits to a proper down the line backhand, or puts some mustard on it cross court in the hopes of getting a weak-ish reply he can either attack again or run around. Those hopeful topspin backhands launched vaguely to the left side of the court just doesnt get it done.

    1. I think Fed just has to play with confidence against Rafa and not get negative in his play just because Rafa makes a tremendous get every now and again.

      At the same time he doesn’t want to have to start going for the lines too much and making cheap errors.

      Like you said the match early on in Aus was all Roger, then he just reverted back to his old self.

      That overhead he missed on BP in AO Semi pretty much summed it up, he was so shocked he got it back he just dumped the ball miles wide.

  4. I watched the semi in Aus this year. Fed’s not hitting deep enough into the court. Nadal’s shots all bounce near the baseline forced Federer back and a weaker return. This also provides Nadal with an opportunity to do drop shot. Fed’s backhands were often inside the service box which makes it easier for Nadal to whip a heavy topspin forehand. If Fed can hit more deep shots into Nadal’s backhand it will be more effective. Nadal actually had quite a lot of bad errors of the backhand wing in that match. Fed needs to do more serve and volley, especially on hard courts. Nadal usually doesn’t do much on the return if Fed serves wide or for the ‘ T ‘. But he needs more confidence. He tried the serve and volley in French 08 and Nadal came up with about 20 passing shots and not including Fed’s unforced errors at the net.

    1. I’d like to see him serve and volley more too, and come in behind more shots.

      I think once he gets burned by 1 or 2 good passing shots his mind renders the tactic useless so he will no longer use it.

  5. Great overview, Luke!

    I think you definitely have a point about Fed’s biggest losses in recent years coming at the hands of younger, power-hitters. With DelPo, I feel like Fed erred tactically at the USO final when he tried to match DelPo on the forehand-hitting. I feel like their AO QF this year was an example of how Fed changed his tactics to go for more dropshots and take away DelPo’s legs (which is the tactic Fed used successfully at their RG SF encounter in ’09).

    Fed’s defeat to Tsonga at Wimbledon last yr was the most surprising for me. I think it definitely highlights all the points you made, that the half-step delay in Fed’s anticipation makes him less able to respond to an explosive hitter like Tsonga (who at his best can be scary to play against).

    **Also, you mentioned in your post that DelPo’s USO win over Fed was his lone victory, but DelPo defeated Fed in the SF at the London World Tour Final in ’09 too! That match went the full 3 sets… I think that shows that a DelPo at full-strength still has a tougher time against Fed.

  6. Superb article, Luke! There’s really nothing I can disagree with that you’ve written.

    I will mention, however, that aside from his inevitable physical decline, stubbornness has a lot to do with his losses, not just recent failures against the big young guns, but against Nadal as well.

    It’s no secret that at the moment, Roger possesses as close to a perfect game as humanly possible. Greatness recognizes greatness and even Nadal can appreciate the artistry and efficiency that is Federer, and has even admitted his wish to play like Roger.

    It used to be that Roger could play passively and cruise to wins because in addition to his masterful strokes, he had youthful footspeed and quickness, so any minor deficiencies in his game were compensated with athleticism alone. However, as he’s grown older, he’s had to change his game in order to balance his diminished athleticism to maintain his level. Unfortunately, his body will eventually betray him completely, but for the time being, he’s doing an excellent job of delaying that.

    It’s taken a while for Roger to admit that he’s had to make up for losing a step even if he doesn’t verbalize it. It’s slowly showing in his game that he needs to beef up his defense and take more risks on offense. He’ll have to play out of his comfort zone in order to win from now on and I’m sure it probably seemed beneath him to resort to that tactic. I’m glad that he’s realizing this though and can only hope he continues to “improve” in this manner because father time catches us all, even the best.

  7. Thx for the kind words boojay & Joanna. Boojay, can’t really add much to what you have written! I was trying to get across in my post Federer’s physical decline and how this can be mitigated by adapting his strategy. Like you say he’s doing a good job – not to say he’s suddenly immobile but some decline is inevitable at 30 years old!

    My bad on that one Joanna! From Del Potro’s perspective I don’t think he’s had necessarily the most strategic approach against Federer – he seems to play almost too tentatively when realistically he sometimes has to be a bit more attacking up against an in-form Fed.

  8. Great article Luke; I really enjoy your posts on tennisniche and look forward to this crossover agreement peRFect

    It seems that at least against Del Potro Federer has righted the ship by exploiting the woeful court positioning of the Tree from Tandil. I cannot believe his coach allows him to stand so far back in order to produce his bludgeoning shots.

    You dont see Isner standing there and he has half the lateral mobility of DelPo!

    I think Roger by virtue of his pristine performances in Fall ’11 over Tsonga and recent Winter ’12 performances over Del Potro has dispelled the notion that he can be simply bludgeoned to death by these folks.

    To me the most dangerous of the bunch against roger is actually Berdych, because he doesnt seem to have as much trouble with the low slice which Roger uses so effectively to cut giants down to size.

    1. Thanks for the comments.

      Agreed Del Potro is tactically inept against Federer.

      I too think Fed has turned it around though, he’s not losing to these guys as often and is playing smarter.

      Be interesting to see him play Berdych, he won well in Bercy though so it might be the same story. Berdych himself is out of form getting bagelled by Almagro.

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