Roger Federer eroded his left knee meniscus right after the Australian Open in 2016, which set the tone for the remainder of the year. Having missed a slew of high profile tourneys like Indian Wells and Miami, he made his way back to the tour in Monte-Carlo, only to miss the following Masters in Madrid citing a back problem. He took five months off till the end of the season after a semi final showing at Wimbledon after his knee had relapsed into injury.
After a successful rehabilitation that was structured around his back and knee, his team had set a goal of reaching back into the top 8 in the world rankings before Wimby, so that he gets a favourable draw for the coveted trophy. His team would have been happy had he started the year after Australian Open, so as not to strain himself with long, demanding tennis sessions and the transoceanic travels.
During the first of their practice sessions, the former World No. 3 Croat, Ivan Ljubicic, pointed out to the Swiss legend that he netted a lot of his backhands, which was true in a like-to-like comparison with his revered forehand. Federer took notice and so did Severin Luthi. A simple observation, coupled with increased body strength and conditioning, has led to one the most intriguing comebacks in modern tennis.
The cornerstone of this almost hard-to-believe rise is the top-spin that Federer has been able to impart with his textbook eastern grip on the 98-inch frame. He rolls the racquet over the ball, much akin to how professionals do it on the table version of tennis, which spin the ball at higher revs. This, in turn, not only makes the ball dip, which seemingly should go long but doesn’t, but also kicks it higher after bouncing off the surface. It is the single most important change that has made him super successful against his nemesis called Rafael Nadal. It is like giving Rafa a taste of his own (forehand) medicine.
Deriving a corollary from this tactic, he is also serving slower than he did in his yester years, manifesting itself in the form of wide kicker serves, which rise higher than usual forcng his opponents to take the ball closer to their adam’s apple than their waist. The tough return on his serve sets him up to close in on the net to finish the point with a skillful volley, something that was honed by his idol, Stefan Edberg during the coaching stint.
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Another facet of Federer’s game that has come to fruition is his return on serve. It has been very underrated with the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray around, whose game have been built around strong defence and counterpunching play. Federer, on the other hand, has perfected taking the ball early which birthed from the famous SABR he started employing a couple of years back.
He was always a precocious talent, and the skillet has only improved over the years. The metamorphosis seems complete with many tennis greats quoting that the Federer who won in Miami in 2017 is playing better than the Federer who won at the same venue in 2006, when he beat his current coach in the finals. We are privy to his domination of 2004-2006, and he is setting the bar high 11 years later.
This year, he has converted 50% of his break points, which is 25% more than his career stat. He is yet to lose against a top 10 player, while winning 7 matches against them. Gael Monfils ended 2016 as World No. 6 with 3625 points. Federer has amassed 4045 ATP points already and it’s only April. Take a moment and appreciate the gravity of that.
At 35, he is choosing to focus only on what would bring him the best return on his physical investment. Having annouced that he would partake only in the rigours of the French Open, which starts in the end of May, he is taking another two-month mid-season hiatus to maximise his chances of hoisting the most famous trophies on either side of the English Channel. And from what we have seen, it wouldn’t be too wise to bet against it.