Way back in 2004, Tim Henman surprised the tennis world by making the Semifinals of the French Open. Other than Wimbledon, Henman had never been past the 4th round of a slam and the grass courts were widely regarded as his best chance of winning a major. In fact, he'd gained the title of a perennial underachiever at the All England Club having lost in the Semifinals on 4 separate occasions, most notably against Goran Ivanisevic when the dreaded rain stopped play with Henman looking a sure-fire bet to make the final. But the French Open of '04 pretty much dispelled the notion that he was only any good on one surface and he went onto make another grand slam semi appearance at the US Open where he lost to, yeah you guessed it, Roger Federer.
The result in Paris was so surprising because Henman was an out and out grass court specialist, a true serve and volleyer of the game who thrived on quick courts where he was able to end points quickly at the net. Henman needed to play the game on his terms and at his pace, something which is very hard to do on a slow clay court where defensive players gain an advantage. As you can see, we can already draw some similarities to Roger's style of play.
The reason I've brought this topic up is that just like Federer currently, Henman was being coached by none other than Paul Annacone. Together they evolved the perfect game plan for clay-court matches and completely transformed Henman's game on the surface. Prior to 2004 Henman basically sucked on clay, he may have been able to beat opponents who also found the surface tricky but against any of the Spanish or Argentinian players, he was guaranteed to be on the end of a beat down. I think he even said publicly that he ‘hated the surface', which is a pretty strong statement!
With Annacone's tactical mind and clarity of thought, they put together a great strategy that saw Henman beat Cyril Saulnier, Lars Burgsmuller, Galo Blanco, Michael Llodra, and Juan Ignacio Chela before eventually losing to Argentine Clay specialist and certified choker, Guillermo Coria. (Henman actually should have beaten Coria as for 1 1/2 sets he was totally dominant, pity he couldn't keep it up. I guess sometimes things really are written in the stars and Henman making a slam final wasn't one of them.)
The strategy was simple, it played to Henman's strengths and he stuck to the plan beautifully. Rather than try and develop a typical clay court game of staying far back behind the baseline and rallying for extended periods, Annacone and Henman adapted his serve and volley game. Henman served harder and more accurately than ever before, he transitioned to the net as quickly as possible and was able to win an incredible number of points by putting away volleys at the first time of asking.
Henman also threw some clever plays into the mixer, his short sliced floaty backhand dragged his opponents wide and his constant variation, change of pace and presence at the net caught his opponents off guard and left them bemused, most notably against Bergsmuller and Chela (a clay specialist) whom he defeated with total ease. It's also worth mentioning that Henman hit his passing shots on both wings exquisitely throughout the course of the tournament. Watch the video below from his Quarterfinal match against Chela for a prime example of sticking to a plan:
Can Roger use the Henman clay court strategy to win at Roland Garros?
Whilst I think Henmans circumstances are much different to Rogers when it comes to clay, i.e. Roger is naturally good on clay and arguably would have multiple French Open titles if it wasn't for Nadal, whereas Henman inherently struggled on the surface. I still think that Fed can implement some of the tactics Henman used to gain an edge against players like Rafa, Djokovic and some of the powerful baseline hitters.
We saw notably in last years French Open final that Roger must do something different to beat Nadal on clay, if he reverts to his comfort zone style of play he gets picked off and is really asking to get beaten.
The Henman clay court style puts players on the defensive and they are unaccustomed to being confronted by an opponent who keeps showing up at the net. This is where I believe Federer could apply this tactic to sway the matchup against Nadal more in his favour. Sure he will get burned by passing shots, but by getting to the net, he gives his opponents less chance to recover from a defensive position and allows himself to end points much quicker.
In the early rounds, Roger can pretty much play as he wishes, he's still a level above the majority of the tour, of course, he can't take any opponent lightly but up until the Semi's and Quarters of a slam he is rarely troubled. By reaching the latter stages of a slam it becomes inevitable that he will face the likes of Djokovic and Nadal. Against these two players, especially Nadal, Roger must play differently. I feel he must do what Nadal has done to him, and by that I mean, he must make Nadal hate playing Roger on clay. Whether it's even possible I don't know, but it's certainly worth thinking about and one way I think he can do that is by ending more and more points at the net.
Roger is naturally a great volleyer, so serving and volleying on clay isn't a huge ask, if he can think clearly and stick to a plan and not forget it, then approaching the net at any given opportunity could surely be a profitable strategy. If nothing else, it will make his opponents think more and hopefully deprive them of any rhythm. We all know what Nadal can do when he settles into a rhythm, he can moonball all day long, and it's a fact that Roger can't beat a moonballer from the back of the court.
What do you guys think? Should Roger try and mix up his play on clay against the likes of Nadal? Is serving and volleying the answer? I'm interested to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment.