French OpenGrand SlamsRoger Federer

Could Federer apply Henman like tactics to win the French Open?

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.


Editor of Perfect Tennis and a big fan of Roger Federer, I've spent countless hours watching and analysing his matches. Alongside playing the sport, I also enjoy writing about the tour, rackets, strings, and the technicalities of the game. Whether it's breaking down the latest tournament results or discussing the latest gear innovations, I'm always eager to share my insights with fellow tennis enthusiasts.

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  1. Cracking article (as usual), I will share my views!

    Henman certainly was (and if he stills plays, is) a serve and volleyer, a subtle part of his game is that his volley were the key component – by that I mean, in my view, his volleys were better than his serve (in retrospective). Once labelled as being a serve and volley player, you think of big, tall, great touch but poor movement due to height. Henman had height on his side – but he had movement too! He could move very well and it was apparent on clay even before his excellent Roland Garros tournament in 2004.

    I disagree with Henman sucking on clay before 2004, here are a few great clay-courters that he defeated before 2004, on clay:

    Monte Carlo 2002 – Henman defeats Coria 6-7 7-5 6-1

    Monte Carlo 2001 – Henman defeats Gaudio 6-4 6-2

    Estoril 2000 – Henman defeats Gaudio 6-4 6-4

    It doesn’t really fit with the “guaranteed to be on the end of a beat down” when he faced a South American player – a lot of them had issues and problems facing Nadal, Coria and Gaudio both lost to him and they were fantastic clay court players!

    “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”

    Well you’re saying this about Henman here, but you could just copy and paste it and apply it to Federer, he’s been doing this exactly for nearly his whole career and on clay, evidently last year (especially in the final) he did this very well against Nadal. Apart from the fourth set, Federer played superbly, pushing Nadal to the very limit, up 5-2* with a set point he was doing exactly as you’ve said; Nadal, the greatest clay-courter, just could not cope.
    The problem is Nadal is not like other clay courters; he is the greatest, he can change and apply his own strategies, in that match he started belting his forehand and Federer’s level dropped (as a result? not sure, but it was disappointing for such an experienced player not to serve the first set out on “fast” clay).

    I would say that Federer is not just naturally good on clay – he’s fantastic. As good as Nadal? No, but Nadal’s game is based to and ascribed to clay, Federer has the variety, touch and creativity on clay that Nadal doesn not have.

    It is very easy to suggest going forward (and S&V) as a strategy – a closer inspection shows that for large parts for the match against Nadal in the Australian Open this year, Federer did just that; he served bombs for most of the match and volleyed superbly through out and still lost.
    He certainly allows himself to end points much quicker, this strategy could be employed more by solely aiming to Nadal’s backhand wing and moving in but even then, Nadal has superb passing shots. What if he keeps passing him? Nadal pushes players back and makes it risky to come into the net by creating huge depth with his forehand, so for say, Federer, to come in, he has to first take Nadal out of court or get him into a decent opening and them come in; and even then, given the nature of the surface, Nadal has time (and the speed, movement and intelligence) to go for a passing shot.
    I think Federer can (and does, has done and will do) beat moonballers from the baseline; he’s been doing that during his whole career. Even before he turned into the superb player he is now, victories in Hamburg against the likes of Coria and Kuerten, at a point where Federer’s movement (prior to 2005 this is) wasn’t sensational so he didn’t rely on his touch or his progression up the court as much he does now shows he can beat moonballers from the back of the court. Key victories include beatin g Djokovic last year, Ferrer on clay, etc, etc.

    It’s only against Nadal where he has issues at this stage; in a hypothetical world, Federer could (and well.. would) have won Roland Garros in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 (which he did, of course) and 2011. Forget being good on clay – that’s a candidate for being the best of all time on the surface. Instead of creating articles on what Federer needs to do on clay, we’d be creating articles on understanding why he is so good on it. In my view his failure to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros hides too much of his amazing work done to get there; he has defeated exceptional players time and time again on clay.
    To beat Nadal on clay he must do exactly as you said – make Nadal hate playing him on clay. Perhaps it’s not so much about the technicality or rhythm, making Nadal lose his marbles and doubting himself would be useful.

    But how do you do that to a guy who is extremely motivated and extremely professional in all of his matches, especially on clay, where he knows he has to win as on other surfaces he is not as good? Nadal is more determined on clay than any other surface.

    1. Thanks for the great comment man! Worthy of a post itself I think.

      Definitely agree on the Henman volley being better than his serve, his serve was actually the weak link in his overall game and probably one of reasons (along with mental fortitude) why he never made it past the semi finals of a slam. It was only really when Annacone came on board that he managed to flatten it out when required and from what I remember he added a couple of new serves that kicked with a good deal of spin.

      I think you are maybe being a bit generous to Henman with regards to his results on clay though, the true measure of a player is at grand slam level, between 1997 and 2003 (his peak years) he didn’t make it past the 3rd round and he lost to some real journey men type of players. I think perhaps he wrote clay off in his mind which effected his performances, but it was only in 2004 that he played consistently well on it.

      I don’t think Roger can beat moonballers from the baseline either especially not left handed moonballers, because Nadal is one of the only moonballers on tour and as of yet he hasn’t been able to do that. Players like Djokovic, Ferrer, Coria, Kuerten weren’t/aren’t moonballers, they were/are grinders but still hit relatively flat. Nadal can of course do that too, but more often than not he will revert to type and moonball it.

      I think I am probably doing Roger a disservice by only saying he’s good on clay, like you say he is exceptional, barring Nadal and Borg he’s probably the best clay courter of all time. And other than all the painful defeats to Nadal, he’s played some awesome matches on clay.

      Beating Nadal is certainly a conundrum, the main reason he loses is the mental side of things. My suggestion of serve and volley is one I feel has knock on effects to the mental side, it can potentially win him a lot of points in a short space of time. Creating confidence and momentum. When Roger won in Indian wells it was because he played a good game plan of hitting to the Nadal backhand and moving him around and getting to the net, because of that it helped him become more mentally confident. He still had a few wobbles but he knew he had a successful formula for winning points when he needed to. I think something similar has to happen on clay, he has to find a successful tactic that puts him in a positive mental state.

      Like you say, it could be terrible and he could get passed all day. I’d still like to see him try it though, I think he’s bound to get passed to a degree, it’s just important that he doesn’t ditch the tactic after getting burned down the line a couple of times.

      PS. I added you to my blogroll!

  2. The net play strategy doesn’t always work against Nadal. Remember back in RG final 08, Federer’s volleys were terrible and that why he got thrashed badly. Fed’s playing brilliantly now, I don’t see anything wrong, but if he can beat Nadal in Madrid or Rome, I think RG is a big chance for him.

    1. I know man, but it’s hard to beat Nadal on clay by just hitting from the back of the court… 08 was mono times so hard to assess. Like you say though see what happens in Madrid, courts are quicker so clearly an advantage.

  3. Fed should stick to the game plan that he used in the first set of last year’s French open. Target Rafa’s back hand and have patience and not try to finish off points too early by rushing to the net. Rushing to the net allows Rafa to hit passing shots because on a slower court he has a lot of time to place it. The problem with Fed is that he plays exceptionally well in the first couple of sets and then his intensity drops. Once he gets a break, he tends to relax a little thereby giving back the break that he earned. Relaxing a bit can work with anybody else except with Rafa. With Rafa, he has to relentlessly attack till the match is finished.

    1. Hi Abishek

      Thanks for the comment. I think you’re pretty much spot on, and thats why Roger has managed to win the last 2 matches over best of 3 sets. 5 sets is a whole different ball game. Playing aggressive for the course of one is tough, let’s hope he can do it!

  4. personally i think that fedy should work on his backhand a bit. earlier he used to hit scintillating backhand smashes.. Nowadays we rarely see those.. he just keeps on slicing the ball back & as a result nadal targets his backhand & eventually federer hits one in the net.

    1. Cheers for commenting Sahil.

      I think of late he’s done exactly what you said, he’s been taking it on the rise and driving through it. See what happens on the clay, Nadals top spin makes it difficult….

  5. He can also try what Djokovic has done lately against nadal, return serves deep into the baseline which will set him up for big shots

    1. He definitely has to return well, but that’s easier said than done… I’m also not sure thats the reason for Djokovic beating Nadal, it’s more to do with Rafa being unable to dicatate play with his forehand because the Djoker backhand is a very good shot.

  6. I agree with you that Roger should more serve and volley against Nadal because it can help him getting some easy points. Nadal likes to stand way back behind the baseline to have more time to reach to Roger’s serves and to be able to return them. By doing so Nadal gives Roger equal time to come forward and position himself well to drop volley the return. But to be effective Roger should do the serve and volleying with lots of tactical acumen, which implies to me that it has to be part of a general strategy of mixing up his way of playing and serving. The serve and volley tactics are risky, and its effectiveness is very dependent of the element of surprise. If Roger serves and volleys constantly, he becomes predictable and will get passed more often and as a result of it lose confidence in the tactic. I think he can apply the serve and volley only more often when he’s playing and serving very well, particularly when he has taken a lead in the games. But even if this is not the case, he can still use the tactic once and a while when serving to the T, because the risk/return ratio seems more positive to me when you serve to the T, leaving not too much space or angle to the opponent to pass you. I think it is more risky though to apply the tactic regularly when serving wide because it looks to me harder for Roger to cover well the court space he is leaving open on both sides of the court. And if I were him, I wouldn’t serve and volley at all when serving to Nadal’s body because in my opinion Nadal’s reflexes are too good to take the risk to come forward when serving to his body.
    So serve and volley, yes, but not all the time like Henman was doing. Just my view for what it is worth…

    1. Thanks for the comment Wilfried.

      Yeah I think you’re right, if he used serve and volley too often then it would become way too predictable. But high risk usually means high reward.

      I wasn’t just advocating serve and volley though as a tactic, more like coming into the net quite regularly behind solid approach shots, which was why Henman was able to make the semi’s. It’s imperative that if there the slightest window to move forward and end the point quickly then he must take it.

  7. I had watched the Nadal/Ferrer final and I have to say I was truly impressed with Ferrer even though he lost by a small margin. The reason I bring this up is Ferrer, however physically fit he is, possesses no real weapon except a half-way decent inside-out forehand and a consistent strong two-handed backhand.I consider Ferrer a baseliner or a grinder just like Nadal and one the better clay players on the tour but next to Federer he is not even close as far as shotmaking, net play, serving, footwork and variety. This leads me to believe that Federer is more than capable of defeating Rafa at Madrid or Rome or the Roland-Garros. I don’t think you can apply just one style of play with Rafa because he starts to figure out your game pattern and starts to beat you because of your predictability. Some of Rafa’s weaknesses showed quite frequently as the final progressed. When Ferrer took his shots early and on the rise, Nadal was having difficulty retrieving and made some errors or couldn’t get behind the ball. Another thing I had noticed is David was returning Rafa’s serve back at him deep and right at his feet or cross court and Rafa was struggling with this too. Federer was doing this at Indian Wells too. Ferrer’s backhand was pretty consistent throughout most of the game and he was defending or attacking pretty well from that wing. Serving out wide in the deuce court and opening up ad court for winners was working out until Rafa started getting behind the ball more. I think Ferrer could of won this tournament if his serve was a tad more consistent( especially on the tie-break ) and a little more variety in the clutch points of the game. A lot of times, both of them, were going cross court back and forth and you were waiting for Ferrer to screw up. I really believe Roger will have to be in the best shape against Rafa in a best of five format. So here it is, the formula to beat Rafa. High first serve percentages(70% or more). Serving out wide in deuce court. Return of serve deep into the body or close to the singles line. Attack the backhand and vary with drop shots, deep on the forehand side either slice or low flat groundstrokes. Unpredictability and maintaining a steady reserve of energy for Rafa never tires and always tries to get one more ball into play or waits for you to set him up with a short ball in the center for him to pounce or to make an unforced error. Rafa’s game depends a lot on his endurance and ability to outlasts his opponents. This is where Roger needs to step it up. Just my opinion.

    1. Great comment man,

      I watched a fair chunk of the final, I thought Ferrer had a lot of chances to get over the line but as usual he wasted chances and made key errors at the wrong time. He should have taken at least the second set especially when he served for it.

      Like you say though, it was a good indicator that Nadal isn’t invincible on clay and there is a way to beat him if you employ the right tactics. Hopefully Roger can do that if they meet, and I agree that he will have to be in the best shape ever to make it through over 5 sets. That’s why he must keep the point short, getting into stupid rallies will only tire him for later sets. I think for Fed to win over 5 he must win the 1st set, no two ways about it.

  8. The Fed-Raonic match at Madrid showed that s&v is an excellent tactic on (fast) clay, keeping the points short, maintaining constant pressure on the opponent, as in indoor hard court tournaments
    The ratio at the net was seemingly poor (19/34 I think) but Such a level of risk was needed, and successful
    Maybe after Miami it was Annacone’s plan to work on attacking and volleying on clay
    Hopefully Roger can improve his confidence by beating Nadal in Madrid or Rome

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Yeah Serve and volley in doses definitely works. High risk but high reward. Bound to lose a few points here and there. But I think over the course of a match if you serve accurately then you will win more points than you lose with it.

      Good match today against Gasquet!

  9. Hi mate, to start off “a peRFect article”. Thanks for the article. I have watched Roger play for more than 10 years now and obviously a huge fan. After witnessing all these victories, grand slams, honors, fame and of course painful defeats he had with Nadal I think I can make my comment with fullest confidence. First off Roger has many weapons up in his sleeves. 2011 Semi final against Djoker was one of the best evidences to prove that he is no less in game techniques than Nadal on Clay. I should say no other player rite now has the perfect mix of footwork, game play, elegance and techniques as Roger does. But why is he losing to someone who is primarily a moonballer [no offense Nadal (if you are reading), I like you a lot, but not your style of play]? Looking this from a psychological view ‘Roger hates playing Nadal in Clay”. Like it or not Roger plays bad when he is playing against Nadal on clay. Probably because he has lost quite a long list of matches. I can give you some proofs. Roger was in a commanding position in 2009 Australian open but then came Nadal in finals. Roger’s game peaked in the 4th set [speaking of Roger’s endurance, please watch the 4th set. I hardly have any doubt on his ability to play 5 set matches and his physical abilities]. But somehow he lost confidence in the 5th set and lost the game. Same happened in 2008 Wimbledon, 2011 Roland Garros (he was leading the first set 5-2 for heaven sake). I say this because of his clay performance with other strong players. 2009 Roland Garros semifinal was one of the toughest matches he played in clay till date. He played grueling 5 setter against the “Terminator Forehand” Del Potro. He was still looking calm, composed, playing good points when needed. Delpo back then was playing the same style as Nadal. He was focusing most of the play for Federer’s backhand. Still Federer managed to pull off one of his finest wins. Last year in Roland Garros semis he did the same with Djoker. He was aggressive in his play and if you remember his gesture at the end of the match – he was nodding his head with his hand gesture to Djoker (probably telling Djoker ‘back off buddy, i am the greatest’). All I am saying is Federer has an illustrious 14 year of experience, 16 GS winning experience, unimaginable number of tricks and techniques to defeat anyone on this planet. All he needs to have to beat Nadal is confidence. He should look down on Nadal as someone he can beat rather than ‘The best player in clay’ (no disrespect whatsoever). If Roger did not had this mentality last year against Djoker in Semis of RG, he couldn’t have had such a win in 4 sets. So he needs to erase all the bad memories he has against Nadal(which is not easy), and of course all the good technical points you guys have mentioned so far. I still believe Roger’s list of GS is gonna grow. Alles Roger.. Regards from Germany

    1. Hey Ramesh,

      Thanks for the great comment and it’s great to have a Fedfan comment who has been following him since the very beginning.

      I totally agree that all losses against Nadal boil down to the mental aspect and confidence levels.

      I believe he has to try something different tactically against Nadal to get the upper hand, which as a result impacts on him mentally. If he can string points together then his confidence grows and he’s able to play freely, this was evident at the WTF last year and at Indian Wells this year. Once he believed he could hit winners against Nadal he never looked back.

      All his losses follow a set pattern, quick start, falter, get bogged down on his backhand, go for too much on his forehand, then ultimately wilt away.

      Like you said, I think if he can replicate the clutchness he showed against Djoker last year at the French then he’d have a big chance of winning.

      Allez les suisse! Look forward to reading more of your comments

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