Making of the Magician
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A Guide to Federer's Playing Style
Federermagic reader Arnab Zaheen writes a well-researched article on Federer's genuine shotmaking ability.
Federer possesses outstanding control over his racket speed, angle and topspin. Aided further by superior anticipation and unusually quick movement, he can subtly dictate the momentum and the direction of the game. He also shows rare mental adaptability and stroke-making versatility as he is known to switch his playing style in the middle of a match or tweak a few things in his game to outsmart and outplay his opponents. He displays unusual calm and an uncommon lack of visible frustration when he makes errors, perhaps a result of his confidence in his unmatched abilties.
Federer's serves are relatively fast, hovering around 120mph. More important than the speed of his serve is his deceptive ability to produce them accurately at different angles and bounces using the same serving motion, a skill that was perfected by Pete Sampras. The Guardian points out that "[Federer's] brightest jewels [are] slow-motion aces, objects of beauty because the rare combination of insidious accuracy and slick disguise [makes] great speed redundant."1
Federer is also exceptional at reading fast serves and returning them. He doesn't punish services with his returns like Andre Agassi does, and seems to prefer the steadier slice or bunt that neutralizes the server's advantage, but his anticipation and ability to read the service appears equal to or superior to Agassi's. During Wimbledon 2003, Sports Illustrated magazine noted the following about Federer's return game against Andy Roddick, the fastest server in the history of tennis: "Federer has a knack for reading Roddick's serve, getting enough of his racket on them to cut down on aces. Roddick had only a pair of aces in each of the first two sets and none in the third. He had 64 aces in his five matches on the way to the semis." 2
Forehand and Backhand
Federer has technically flawless forehand and backhand shots that he can unleash with great power, often at speeds near 100mph, anywhere on the court, prompting many commentators to exclaim that he makes the court look smaller or that he reduces tennis to mere ping-pong. He is one of the few top players who play with a one-handed backhand. Rod Laver is especially fond of the Federer backhand and says that it "is the best shot he plays, as he can roll his racket over the top of the ball, or hit it straight. I don't know how he manages to hit the ball so cleanly all the time."3
Shotmaking in Exceptional Circumstances
Federer usually plays with moderate aggression and doesn't go for the dominant shots all the time. Like all great players, he has a knack for creating all kinds of spectacular shots when pushed into compromising positions, usually when an opponent approaches the net expecting easy putaways. But Federer's responses are probably far more varied then any other player in the history of the game: looping crosscourt backhand passes, wristy and instinctive backhand pickups from the midcourt placed at very acute angles, exceptionally accurate down-the-line backhand passing shots while on the run, a heavily-topspinned forehand crosscourt pull from the baseline that, upon bounce, spins and fades away from lunging opponents, crushing forehand shots from the baseline that land inside the service box and speed away, and more.
Federer has great defense at the back of the court and is exceptionally good at returning deep, close-to-the-baseline shots from his opponents with effortless, Andre Agassi-like but even better, instinctive half-volleys and John McEnroe-like behind-the-body backhand flick returns. He is among the best in the world - one might say on par with Lleyton Hewitt, but without the gritty terrier-like tenacity and with nonchalant grace at chasing down his opponents' dominant baseline shots and keeping balls in play. Federer is, however, not entirely invincible at the baseline and shows vulnerability (and incidentally, a rare room for improvement) at his backhand side. There are times, though seldom, when an opponent can force errors from Federer's backhand defensive shots either by pounding relentless, accurate, flat and deep shots at his backhand corner (exposed against Marat Safin on hardcourt at the Australian Open 2005 semi-final) or by employing high-bouncing topsin shots at the same corner (exposed against Rafael Nadal on clay at the French Open 2005 semi-final).
In addition to these, he deliberately "mixes up" his game to keep his opponents guessing all the time. One of his more creative shots while not under pressure is a beautifully executed, both feet on the air, inside-out forehand from his backhand side generated using a unique, almost-complete lateral rotation of his torso --- a shot that he uses selectively for more power and angle instead of using the stock backhand. He has also reintroduced the backhand slice in fast courts to deliberately slow down the tempo of the game, and it serves well for the seemingly "cat-and-mouse" games he plays with his opponents. He is also adept at unexpectantly producing dying, back-spinning dropshots at the foot of the net, both forehand and backhand, and often employs them successfully from the back of the court against the fastest runners and anticipators in the game. Furthermore, his flexibility and quickness allow him to hit clean winners with perfect racket preparation and positioning - even when he is facing low-bouncing balls at the midcourt.
At the Net
Federer's playing style at the net, like the rest of his game, rarely seems rushed or fidgety. He almost always makes sure-footed steps at the net. At times his flexibility allows him to make galloping strides to his left or right and help himself in positions to make seemingly effortless volleys from well below the net level. And the volleys themselves are exquisitely executed, especially the stop-volleys. Federer often employs the right amount of backspin on his stop-volleys so that after the ball barely clears the net and lands on the other side, it either stops dead with minimal bounce or, to the further frustration of his opponent, backspins. This explains why Federer doesn't usually have prolonged net enounters with his opponents. He likes to finish off his net points early. The lack of such encounters, however, may prove to be his Achilles' Heel during crucial points against an opponent who is extremely quick to reach the net and who thrives at the prospect of making agile, instinctive counterpunch in such situations. Federer's sure-footedness and effortless pickups at the net reminds one of Sampras, whereas the crisp, timely execution of volleys are reminiscent of Stefan Edberg, who is incidentally one of Federer's childhood idols. Federer's net game is most suited for grass, and it has helped him capture three back-to-back Wimbledon titles.
The Feel and other Intangibles
Federer also demonstrates uncanny disguise in his ability to hold the point of contact with the ball (and consequentially his opponent) a split second longer. In the absence of anticipatory cues, Federer's opponents cannot readily get a jump on his shots. He can play down the line or crosscourt off the identical stance and seemingly identical swing - directing the ball either left or right by a subtle change in timing. As his ATP peer Tim Henman points out: "I can watch when I'm playing him and there are certain times where I will hit a shot, I will be at the net and it almost looks he's got a split second longer than most other players...Sometimes he comes across to hit a backhand pass when you feel like you've hit a good approach and it's like he has got a bit longer to hit it." 4
Federer's mastery, beyond being able to hit all shots and angles, combines a number of intangible factors, including fluid strokes with little mental interference, genius in constructing points, seamless transitions from defense to offense, an intuitive understanding of his opponent's options and likely responses, and a clear, calm mind that executes instantly. As he commented after the Australian Open 2004 final win against Safin: "I feel when a guy is going to hit the ball, I know exactly with the angles and the spins, I just feel that I've got that figured out. And that is just a huge advantage."5 Fellow ATP player Ivan Ljubicic also points out that "[Federer] usually tries to hit winner[sic] at the beginning of game which causes panic in his opponent. After that, he patiently waits for his opportunity or hits winner[sic] when needed."6
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