Skill Vs Strength: Roger Federer

Is how a player or team wins important in sport? I would argue most definitely. In my lifetime the best tennis players I’ve seen are Becker, Edberg, Agassi, Sampras, Nadal and Federer. I’ve only see clips of Laver and Borg. Both had their own effective styles. However, FedEx is the best player of all time – not just because of his statistics but because of the way that he plays the game. Sunday the 8th of July 2012 confirmed this to me when Federer beat a physically superior Andy Murray to clinch his record 17th Grand Slam.

Serving for the game:
Most observers will tell you that the game became somewhat boring when it was dominated by the big servers in the 1990s. The game became dominated by monster hitters and the amount of rallies to win points decreased. The main proponents of this game were Richard Krajicek, Goran Ivanesivic, Mark Phillipousis and, of course, Pete Sampras. Games turned into ace, serve winner, ace, double fault, rally, ace etc. I actually found watching some of these players very exciting but, overall, when deciding how great say Sampras was, you’d have to say he was a little reliant on his huge serve. It’s not that Federer has a bad serve. Far from it. The beauty of his serve is the variation, the “slow aces” that he plays. These are the serves that generate aces not due to their power but their topspin, placement and angle. The best example of this was his second serve against Nicolas Kiefer in the 2006 Australian Open. The spin off that serve is almost beyond comprehension. Federer has possibly the most varied serve in the game. He changes it constantly when he’s playing and often hits aces with clever, intricate serves. Take Federer in a head to head with Murray at Wimbledon this year. He beat him 3-1 in the final. However, Murray scored the second highest amount of aces (90) across his 7 matches. Federer hit 71. It didn’t matter: he beat him using skill, not power. In this regard, Federer has changed the game forever. He’s made it more exciting, more watchable. Gone are the short service-conquers-all games. In are actual rallies to win points; thinking on your feet, reacting to the opponent, drop shots, backhand winners. Proper skilful tennis, not raw power. In 2003 he beat the ace merchant Phillipousis in straight sets. In 2004 and 2005 he beat Roddick twice, another massive server. Roddick recorded the fastest serve on record (155 mph) in the 2004 Davis Cup. Kids watching the game pre-Federer would have looked at both of his first Wimbledon final opponents and would have looked to try and play a big serving game. Not so now. Becker said after Fedex’s 2003 triumph “This is a good example for any junior watching. You don’t need to serve at 135mph. We have seen the future, it arrived today”. How right he was.

Return of serve:
When learning to defeat the big servers earlier in his career, FedEx had to develop a lethal return of serve. In tennis, the big servers will aim to hit a 140mph first serve in. That’s the aim. If you get one of those in, then your almost guaranteed the ace- thats the logic. Connors and Agassi are seen as some of the best return of serves in the game. FedEx’s brilliant return of serve isn’t heralded as much as, say, his forehand. However, it’s lethal. His famous 2007 return of Roddicks 140mph serve has to be seen to be believed – YouTube it. He developed a way to defeat the giant servers by getting his racket onto the most difficult of serves. Once he gets players into a rally, he always backs himself to outdo them through his technique. You rarely see a server get 10 aces or more against FedEx as he’s so good at returning them. His movement before his opponent serves is what helps him to do this. His tactical awareness and quickness off the mark enable him to make returning look easier than it actually is.

Shot selection:
Crowds love him for many reasons, one of which has to be the incredible variety of shots he plays. He’s got more variation in his game than anyone ever; the perfect player if you like. His forehand often reaches 100mph in play. Most players that have beaten FedEx, particularly Nadal, target his backhand. Not because it’s weak but for the simple reason that his forehand is too good. He developed his forehand uniquely by getting large amounts of speed and topspin into the shot. This potent combination has helped him produce countless winners. However, it’s the poise and elegance that he uses when hitting his forehand that differentiates him from the other greats. It’s not just the power of his forehand, it’s the accuracy and the seemingly effortless way in which he dispatches winners. He’s the most stylish and elegant player ever to pick up a racket. His one-handed backhand is unique among modern Slam winners. Most players hit it two-handed to get more power on the shot: not so the Express. It’s a joy to watch him hit one handed backhand winners. Again, it’s not the power that he gets on the shots, it’s the accuracy, spin and placement that makes it lethal.

Artistic recovery:
He’s got out of some impossible situations through his genius. If you haven’t seen his shot against Roddick in 2002 in Basel, check it out. Roddick slams a shot into deep and high into the corner. Federer jumps up like some kind of superhero and almost volleys a winner past Roddick! Who else could play that shot? Most pro players will make the odd great shot, but Federer consistently gets out of trouble by playing the most outrageous winners. No article on the Express can be written without mentioning the 2009 US open semi final vs Djokovic when Federer hit that famous winner though his legs shot. The man himself said it was his greatest ever shot. The shot is beyond genius. I’m a firm believer that there is a line where art and sport meet. It’s in the instinctive, natural, creative moment where something timeless and memorable is created. People will talk about them forever. Federer is an artist. He plays shots that make me shout at the screen when I’m watching. He brings crowds to their feet, much like a band playing a good live gig would. Sport is not just about statistics. Seventeen Slams, 286 weeks at number one – these are yardsticks to prove his greatness. They’re necessary, but they don’t articulate his talent. Only watching him can do that. If you haven’t seen his greatest hits on video, you’re in for a thrill. Sit back and watch the man in action.

The comeback king:
Nadal. The man is a legend. A powerhouse. Look at the head to head record and Nadal leads 18-10. So, Nadal has his number right? Wrong. Of the 28 times they’ve met, 50% of these were on clay. Nadal leads the head to head on clay 12-2! On hardcourt, Federer leads Nadal 6-5. Switch to grass, Federer leads him 2-1. So on 66% of surfaces, Federer is better head to head. Statistics aside, Nadal got in his head. When the king of clay conquered 2010 (winning 3 slams) and Djokovic dominated 2011, not many observers gave FedEx a chance to regain his foothold at the very top of the game. It was almost impossible to see him winning another Slam. In sport, as in other walks of life, there’s something magical about a beaten warrior coming back from being down and out to re-take the throne. Make no mistake: Federer looked beaten in his quest for another slam beofre Wimbledon 2012. A lot of people would have wilted under the stranglehold that Nadal and Djokovic seemed to have on the game. To be considered a true great, you must be durable. When Nadal came along, he changed the game again, much like the big servers before him. Instead of putting the emphasis on massive serves, Nadal put it on slugging it out in baseline rallies. He put all his effort into physicality. Of course he’s a brilliant and skillful player. However, with his huge muscles, he put the focus back on out battling other players through his ferocious forehand. It worked. Djokovic, with his famous gluten free diet, then outmuscled Nadal. That’s the problem with playing a strength based game, there’s always somebody who is stronger than you. Nadal and Djokovic smashed Federer off the court in 2010 and 2011. He looked physically inferior and a man whose time was up. He kept playing his game and Nadal and Djokovic almost played themselves into the ground. To regain number one and win his 17th Slam, after almost two years without one, in the face of two brutal foes, is what sets the Express apart from every other player. He’d only been to one Slam final in his last nine appearances . To wrestle it back was incredible. Federer is the oldest player since Arthur Ashe in 1975 to win Wimbledon. Watching the 2012 Wimbledon final with Murray, what struck me was that in the first set which Murray won, he tried to bully Federer physcially and impose his game on the Express. Federer’s skill and genius helped him outwit Murray technically. Thus a player in his absolute prime physically was beaten by a player past his physical best. There was actually a moment where he seemed to break Murray’s heart. He played a drop shot which Murray chased and just about returned. Having drawn him into the net, Federer then lobbed him! Murray fell over while scrambling to retrieve the lob. Murray cursed his racket after the ball was called good. No matter how physcial he tried to make the match, he was outwitted at every turn. Amazing to witness. Re-establishing himself as number one in 2012, through his genius, is just another reason why he’s the greatest ever.

Wimbledon: Where greatness is confirmed.
Nadal had won more Slams by the age of 25 than any other player ever. He has eleven Slams very early in his career. However, seven of these Slams are on clay. The French Open is a worthy. However, Wimbledon is the biggest, best and most prestigious tournament there is. Why? Well, to me, grass is the most difficult surface to win on. Its suited to more skillful players. The ball moves a lot faster on grass which means the players reactions have to be quicker and more accurate. Clay is suited to more baseline rallies as the ball moves slower on the surface. You have more time to retrieve the ball on clay than on grass. Therefore it suits Nadal’s physicality. However, there can be no doubt about which surface is more suited to skill. Perhaps this is why Nadal has won two Wimbledons. When I was growing up, the French Open was, if not an afterthought, then most definitely a distinct second to Wimbledon. For me, if Nadal wants to be considered one of the all-time greats, he simply has to win more Wimbledons. Winning 63% of your Slams on clay isnt enough for me. In the Open era, the top Wimbledon players (therefore for me, the top players of all) are 1) Sampras/ Federer 2) Borg 3) Becker and McEnroe with 3 each. Wimbledon is where it’s at. To prove your greatness, you simply must do it there. Federer is joint top here. What seperates him from Samprass is his 17 slams vs 14 and his greater skill level.

Who knows where he’ll go from here. Will the 2012 Wimbledon be a sign of a revival? Could he win another slam? We’re in unchartered territory. I for one feel priveleged to be around to watch the legend in action. All the skill, all the genius. Savour it because one day, we’ll be back to big servers and hard hitters trying to beat each other up on the tennis courts.



About Mick Gilbride

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