Like yesterday’s sexy burgundy beret, now out of fashion––but still a favorite you cannot set aside––Federer fans cling to their tennis star.
They plead for more time before the Swiss must be packed away with the other poignant memories, wrapped in tissue sitting on a shelf in the back of the closet.
Even a year ago, at the start of the 2010 Roland Garros campaign, Roger Federer was the No. 1 player in the world and the defending 2009 French Open champion.
In 2009, with a fissure in Nadal’s hold on elusive Stade Roland Garros crown, the Swiss willed his way to the final, refusing to lose. The win in Paris gave Federer a career grand slam. He joined Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Don Budge, Fred Perry and Andre Agassi, in earning that rare accomplishment.
After winning the French title, Federer went on to recapture Wimbledon––his fifteenth grand slam trophy. Federer suffered a disappointing loss to Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open. But in late January, Federer captured the 2010 Australian Open to win his 16th career grand slam title.
As the 2010 clay season got underway, fans and pundits remained uncertain about the future of Rafael Nadal who had lost his own No. 1 ranking after falling during the fourth round at the 2009 French Open to Robin Soderling and being unable to defend his 2008 Wimbledon crown.
Once Nadal hit the 2010 clay court season, however, he could not lose. Trying to tighten his schedule, the Majorcan played fewer matches. The result was that Nadal won the three clay court Masters Series events in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid. Then he went on to recapture the 2010 French Open.
Because Federer lost in the quarterfinals of the 2010 French Open to Robin Soderling, the Swiss also lost his No. 1 ranking to Nadal. Federer needed to go one more step––to the semifinals to hang onto his ranking. The Swiss dropped back to No. 2.
Nadal built a huge lead over the rest of the men’s field, going on to win at Wimbledon and the 2010 U.S. Open.
Once 2011 began, however, another player quickly began to challenge the top two men––Nadal and Federer. Serb Novak Djokovic who is on a 41-match winning streak first surpassed Federer, who has dropped back to No. 3. Next the Serb hopes to move past Nadal to capture the elusive No. 1 ranking.
In order to remain fixed in his place at the top of the men’s game with a hope of moving up, Federer needs to get back to the finals of majors. The Swiss has not been to a major final since he won the Australian Open in 2010.
Accomplishing that on clay that means something a little different than it does in New York or London or Melbourne.
Having success on clay means honing patience, constructing points, serving exceptionally well, returning even better than your opponent and employing well-timed aggression when the opportunities arise.
Number One: Patience with Purpose
Clay court victories generally require excessively long rallies. Play on the red dirt is where hovering on the baseline is acceptable. But mindlessly striking the ball across the net without a plan will never get a player anywhere except home early.
For Federer, this aspect of conquering on clay is not an issue. Sometimes, however, because the Swiss has so many options, he gets confused trying to decide which course of action will work best against a particular player. This was true of his second-round match against French qualifier Maxime Teixeira. All players should have this problem––right.
Federer’s true issue is focus. Sometimes it seems the great man goes away for a period of time out of boredom or distraction. After being at the top of the men’s game since 2003 for a record 237 consecutive weeks, staying on task is sometimes difficult. So is being patient.
Federer has been playing the game at the professional level since he took the court for the first time in 1998. He has made millions of dollars. So at times, he forgets to win against players who should not beat him.
It requires total focus to stay there minute by minute playing a game that is so ingrained it is part of your psyche. It was easier on the way up––when winning was new and stimulating.
It is harder to win now––not because the will to win is absent but because staying in the moment is impossible 24/7.
Number Two: Constructing Points Moving Forward
This area of improvement goes hand in hand with “patience.”
While focus is essential for Federer at this stage of his career, the Swiss also needs to look for more ways to construct points that offer Federer a short ball and an easy put away.
This ultimately means shortening the matches and conserving energy.
The Swiss Maestro certainly knows how to do these things. His recent addition in 2008 of the drop shot gave him a decided edge on the baseline hinterland dwellers. For most players Federer faces, victory is assured in the early rounds even when the Swiss is not playing his best.
But if Federer wishes to advance to the finals––and we know he does––he must find ways to push his advantage by working his way forward, being aggressive and shortening points whenever possible. In order to win, the Swiss may have to risk more.
Number Three: Serving Exceptionally Well
It is perhaps redundant to state this point because it is so obvious, but Federer needs to serve exceptionally well to make grand slam finals. This means consistently getting effective first serves in for the whole match.
In order to win against the best players, Federer cannot afford to lose his serve, obviously. There are moments in a match when Federer appears to lose focus and this affects his serve. Once the Federer serve is broken in a set, that makes the great man work harder to break back, putting him under more pressure.
Federer’s serve is perhaps the most underrated stroke in his arsenal of shots. So far in 2011, the Federer serve ranks high in most categories. Federer ranks third behind Ivo Karlovic and Novak Djokovic in “Service Games Won” winning 89 percent in 36 matches. Djokovic also wins 89 percent with Karlovic leading the way with 91 percent.
Federer is also tied for third with Tomas Berdych in “First Serve Points Won,” winning 77 percent in 36 matches. Ahead of him in this category are Canadian Milos Raonic with 78 percent in 32 matches and Karlovic with 80 percent in 22 matches.
Federer is number one in “Second Serve Points Won” with 57 percent. Rafael Nadal is second with 56 percent, followed by Djokovic also with 56 percent. Federer is No. 13 in “Break Points Saved” at 65 percent. In “1st Serve Percentage,” however, Federer comes in only at No. 24 at 63 percent.
None of these numbers indicate a problem overall. Federer has been serving for so many years that the toss and follow through are as automatic as breathing. More than anything else, when the great man’s serve deteriorates, the fault goes back to focus.
Number Four: Returning Serve Even Better
The return of serve can be an opportunity to win points.
Sometimes it is all you can do to get the ball back across the net when you are facing big servers like Karlovic or Andy Roddick.
But other times, the return of serve is an opportunity to win quick points and upset your opponent, causing him or her to worry about serving the ball the next time.
Roger Federer so far in 2011 is ranked No. 14 in “Points Won Returning First Serve” at 33 percent. Nadal is first in this category at 38 percent. Federer is No. 24 in “Points Won Returning Second Serve” at 51 percent. Nadal, again, is No. 1 in this category at 59 percent.
Astonishingly, Federer comes in only at No. 52 in “Break Points Converted” at 38 percent. Andy Murray leads in this category at 52 percent. This is definitely an area for improvement in the Federer return game. In “Return Games Won,” Federer lands in the No. 20 spot at 27 percent with Djokovic leading in this category at 43 percent.
Again, this remains an area where Federer could exert some real pressure.
Number Five: Ratchet Up the Aggression Meter
Gone are the days for Federer when the fear factor won the Swiss a game or two from opponents. Now most players take the court believing they can beat the Maestro. This is a natural phase as a player comes down from the mountain top. Not only that, but players are inspired to defeat the man many regard as the best ever to play the game of tennis.
That requires Federer at times, to step outside his comfort zone. The Swiss is used to finding his way into a match, figuring out his opponents, often waiting for them to self-destruct. But those tactics in this new era often translate into time for his opponents to gain confidence.
Federer needs to create new ways to apply more pressure, to step into the court for returns, taking a well-timed risk from time to time against the top-ranked players. This is exactly what they are doing to him now. Federer needs to return the favor.
Federer has great hands. He can serve and volley exceptionally well. Looking to use that advantage by advancing to the net from time to time––as well as stepping into the court to return serve are risky––but worth it if such actions allow the Swiss to gain him time, focus and points.
Federer can hit any shot, any angle. He maybe the most complete player ever to take to court. Not many dispute that fact.
But in order to stay relevant, in order to make major finals, Federer must find another level to his game in the later stages of tournaments as he faces Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and other top ranked players.
Federer’s return game is an obvious place to concentrate his efforts. Being more aggressive, moving into the court to shorten points are all steps Federer and his coach know exist.
It means taking risks but the alternative is continuing to leave the great tennis stages of the world early and never having a chance to capture slam No. 17.