In the 2015 draw of Cincinnati, Roger Federer unleashed a new tactic upon the tennis world. Federer rushed towards the net when receiving serve, taking the ball on the rise. Confused and discombobulated, his opponents would scramble just to get the ball back in play before Roger finished the point with a judicious volley.
What was this new tactic? It wasn’t anything that anyone else had attempted before. It bore the greatest similarity to the last millennium’s game when courts were significantly faster, and the surface rewarded players more for taking the ball early. But during the American hard court season, Federer had displayed something entirely new.
The SABR (or Sneak Attack by Roger) originally came about when Federer’s longstanding coach, Severin Lüthi, encouraged him to come forward and take the serve further up the court. Federer jokingly took the advice to its logical extreme in a practice session and ventured towards the net while his opponent’s ball was still in the air.
From the success of the shot, a new tactic was born. Federer deployed the SABR throughout the Cincinnati tournament, but notably against Kevin Anderson in the round of 16 and Novak Djokovic in the final.
Federer uses the SABR against Anderson, 2015 Cincinnati
What Are The Technicalities of the SABR?
The SABR can only be attempted by the player returning the serve. When the server begins their toss, and their eyes are on the ball, the returner moves forward as quietly as possible. When the server makes contact with the ball, the returner should make a split-step around one to two feet behind the service line, depending on their appetite for risk.
The aim is to take the ball on the rise so that the server is taken by surprise and is on the defensive from the inception of the point. The returner should continue to move forward and end the point with a volley if needed. Typically, the racquet is held with an eastern backhand grip, so the effect is a flat, deep ball that is difficult to put back in play.
Half-volleying with the backhand grip allows the returner greater lateral coverage, as a forehand grip cannot reliably cover balls heading near the returner’s body or feet due to limited wrist rotation on that side.
Kyrgios’s love and admiration for Federer led to his own attempt at the SABR. The Australian has used the SABR off a first serve in daring and outrageous fashion, though Federer usually opts for the second. Double-handed backhand players can be confident in trying out the shot after Kyrgios’s efforts, particularly as the non-dominant hand on the racquet aids energy transfer for a punchier shot.
Kyrgios tries out the SABR against Zverev, 2017 Beijing
What Are The Costs and Benefits of the SABR?
Firstly, the SABR looks good. If you’re the kind of player who cares as much about style as substance, then it is a visually heroic feat. For the opponent, a successful SABR is mentally disrupting. Not only is there the sudden shock of seeing the returner ready at the net, but the expectation of rally dominance that a service game usually provides has been overthrown.
The server may also feel anxious about what other surprise tactics the returner may employ during the next point. Furthermore, their chance to build momentum and consistency from the baseline has been swiftly denied. But the shot does require a lot of practice. The high ball speeds and limited time can make it easy for the returner to make an error. Even Federer struggled to make a successful SABR every time against Djokovic in the 2015 US Open final, who could counter Federer’s aggression with a lob, leaving him stranded in no man’s land. It is a high risk, high reward tactic.
Trying The SABR Out In Real Life
Practising and trying the SABR in matches can give their game a real lift for club players. Returning further up the court will test your timing and coordination on the half-volley. In general, taking the ball earlier, especially from the baseline, is a key skill to develop and can help players become more aggressive and keep points short. Moving further up the court will also provide a chance to refine the volleying technique.
This area of tennis, in particular, is becoming somewhat of a lost art among my generation of younger club players, though hopefully, the SABR will be an encouragement towards more netplay. The chance to experiment also makes the game more interesting.
The tactic is a good way to break up traditional patterns of play, bringing a fresh change from extended baseline rallies. The pure excitement of running into the net feels a little cheeky and gives a boost of energy.
The SABR is a trick shot. It’s slightly flashy, incredibly disruptive for the opponent, and so much fun to play. For Federer, it’s a capsule of his attacking style and a microcosm of his game. It requires timing, skill and a touch of finesse.
In professional matches, Federer has used the SABR as part of an array of net and volleying tactics to gain dominance over the rally quickly. Practising the SABR is an opportunity for club players to sharpen their technique and become emboldened during matches.