What Truly Makes Roger Federer Great

Yes, we all know about Roger Federer's 17 Slams, his regaining of the No. 1 ranking, and his equaling of the 286-week record at No. 1 held previously by Pete Sampras. Congratulations to the great Swiss player but in this article, I will neither repeat his astonishing statistics nor reload the "bravo" tributes and comments that newswires have been overloaded with since his moment of victory at Wimbledon. I will simply attempt to point to a certain aspect of Federer as a tennis player that I believe to be non-existent in any other player, and yet seems to mysteriously remain undervalued, if not obscure, to most so-called tennis experts.

Obviously his forehand, his physical shape, the variety of his shots, and his serve, only to mention a few, are all putative qualities of Federer. I would like to go a little further than that in this article. Let's take into account Federer's Sunday's final match against Andy Murray, along with his 2009 Wimbledon final match against Andy Roddick. The comparative analysis of these finals posits two relatively overlooked qualities of Federer: his intelligence and awareness on the court.

Let's rewind the clock back to three years ago to that final between Federer and Roddick.

In 2009, in the finals against Roddick, Federer began the match playing aggressively, looking to advance to the net at every opportunity. Roddick was focused from the start and was able to withstand the barrage of attacks from Federer. Roddick took many people by surprise by producing some sizzling passing shots to counter his opponent's early aggressive tennis. As the set advanced, we witnessed Federer becoming more and more intimidated by Roddick's accurate passing shots. He began to stay at the baseline and to try to dictate the rally with aggressive ground strokes. On the other hand, Roddick got more confident as the set went on.

At 6-5 on Federer's serve, he hit an "out-of-this-world" forehand crosscourt winner, and then followed it later in that same game with a terrific backhand down-the-line drive on set point to win it, 7-5. The Swiss needed to change his tactics before it was too late. Well, he did more than that.

Federer did not simply adjust his game after the first set. He completely changed his tactic and outlook. He took a 180-degree turn from his initial plan at the start of the match and went to an exclusively defensive format. He ceased venturing to the net unless forced to do so, thus taking targets away from Roddick. He made each point last longer, giving Roddick plenty of floaters and low-speed slices in order to force him to hit several great shots to win points. He placed himself further behind the baseline with the intention of running every ball down, prolonging the time of the rallies and the games, including plenty of off-speed, loopy shots that gave him ample time to come back to the middle of the court if he was ever pushed to the corners.

In short, after the first set, Federer basically took a page out of a classic clay court retrieving game and applied it to the grass of Wimbledon. While it is true that the second set could have gone either way (Roddick did have four set points, one of which was an easy forehand volley that he missed), Federer was able to give himself a chance to level the playing field and have a tangible shot at winning the second set. After he won it in a tiebreaker, the match was not only leveled on the scoreboard, but also on the court. Helped by a superb serving performance — he hit his 50th ace to win the epic match at the end of four hours of 16 minutes of battle — Federer eventually prevailed over Roddick, 16-14, in the fifth set, while playing defensively for the remainder of the match.

Now, let's fast-forward the clock to Sunday's 2012 final between Federer and Murray.

Murray began the match with an aggressive approach, and Federer began with an unusual amount of errors (including after he survived the initial break and came back on serve). Federer was not particularly playing defensive, but Murray kept launching so many aggressive shots in succession that all Federer could do was to retrieve balls the best that he could for the first several games of the match. He did eventually break back, but Murray's early form had him unsettled. The unforced errors still kept coming and he lost the first set, 6-4.

To circumvent the problem, Federer did the reverse of what he did in 2009. To counter Murray's initiative to dictate the points, he began to "out-attack" Murray with an even more aggressive game with the intention to cut the points short. Although he was not the better player in the second set, Federer did what was working best for him: build the points around coming to the net. He came to the net 26 times in the second set (vs. 15 in the first) and won twice more points approaching the new (total: 22) than in the first.

Relentlessly staying loyal to his modified plan, Federer began to further embellish it by adding the "chip-and-charge" and progressively coming to the net on second-serve returns in the third set during which he was the better player. Once he won the third set, there was no doubt that he would do more of what he did in the second and third sets. In the fourth set, he came to the net 16 times and won 14!

Overall, in the last three sets, the approaches to the net included slice approach shots, swing volleys, chip-and-charge returns, drop shot that he followed up to the net, wide balls that he knew would put Murray on the run, and last but not the least, several serve-and-volley attempts of which he only lost one point. This time, Federer won the title by changing his game to total offense, in the reverse manner of what he did in 2009, and taking a page out of '70s and '80s grass court tennis, (minus the "continuous" serve-and-volley). It is only fitting that he celebrated the winning point by lifting his arms and immediately falling to his knees at the net after watching yet another passing shot attempt by Murray sail long.

It is an important asset for a top-level tennis player to have the ability to insert variety to his or her game. Although not many do, there are more than a few players who possess the ability to use plenty of variety on their game, including Murray in the finals on Sunday. These few players are already quite distinguished and in a class of their own. However, it is another thing to be able to combine the intelligence and the on-court awareness with that variety in order to modify strategies and produce the result desired. Some of these distinguished players will not do it either because they are still lacking courage to do it, or because they don't feel comfortable doing it in the course of match, or simply because they the thought does not occur to them.

But the one that can dare to undertake such adjustment and actually follow through with it successfully is the kind of sui generis player who can comfortably claim to have "a Plan A" to fall back to in case the "other Plan A" that is already in use is not functioning well. Plan B is not an option for this type of player. Federer in 2009 against Roddick, as well as on Sunday against Murray, simply went from one Plan A to another.

I believe Federer's skill to have more than one Plan A along with the presence of mind to know intrinsically when to shift at will from one Plan A to the next is one of the primordial elements of Federer's success. While other players strive during their whole careers to improve up weaker defensive (or offensive) parts of their games to match their stronger side, and practice for years their weaker shots to complement their stronger ones, Federer has gone past this stage early in his career. Furthermore, he has not only reached the next stage that I have explained above — the combination of intelligence and variety resulting in multiple Plan As — but he has excelled in that area, the one that other players in the game of tennis never even get to experience.

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Comments and Conversation

July 11, 2012


Mert - nice touch focusing on Federer’s in-game mentality rather than the numbers everyone’s talking about. I also think that when people are talking about his current no. 1 ranking and 7th Wimbledon, they are focusing too much on his standing as of now and forgetting the process of how he got here since last year. So I think it’s worth considering what Federer has done since last summer to understand what an amazing achievement this is, which took careful schedule planning and unbelievable determination on his side.

In September 2011, he lost the US Open semi-final to Djokovic after losing 2 match points to him second year in a row, which must have been devastating. This came after a tough QF loss to Tsonga at Wimbledon after a 2 set lead. After US Open, Federer was no. 3 in the rankings at 8,380 points, behind Nadal at 10,620 and Djokovic at 14,720. Djokovic had amazing momentum given his unbelievable year and Nadal was right up there in every Slam final along with him. Furthermore, Murray passed Federer as no. 3 in October and publicly stated that his aim was to finish the year at no. 3 ahead of him.

With all these factors against him, having won only 1 title year-to-date (Doha) and at no. 4 with an immense point gap with Djokovic in October ‘11, I have to say for any other mortal tennis player coming back to no. 1 in these circumstances would have been unimaginable.

After US Open in Sept, he travelled immediately to Australia for the Davis Cup tie and was on his familiar surface grass where he recorded wins against Hewitt and Tomic and the Swiss won the tie. He then took almost 2 months off and came back at his home tournament in Basel which gave him the boost he needed. He then followed these up with his first win in Paris indoor and the London finals. Then his first win in Rotterdam followed by Dubai, Indian Wells, Madrid and now Wimbledon. Winning 8 tournaments since his standing in Oct ’11 given all the adverse circumstances is the result of exemplary planning, regrouping, determination and other inexplicable factors that are only known to very few sports greats.


July 14, 2012

Mert Ertunga:

Hi Selim,

As usual, thanks for the wonderful input. In the future, when we look back I believe we will marvel at two aspects of Federer when it comes to his longevity and the continuous success of his career: (1) his physical condition and the fact that he rarely gets injured (2) as you point out so well, his skillful scheduling.


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