Halftime Sports

How Roger Can Rule the Tennis World Again

October 9, 2015

Otago Daily Times

When I was eleven years old, I watched Roger Federer lose the 2008 Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal. I’ll never forget my mom cheering in excitement as her favorite athlete roared in triumph upon claiming his first Wimbledon title. As I realized the enormity of the situation, I remember burying my head into my hands, overcome with frustration. It wasn’t Rafa winning his first title that upset me. It was the cold hard reality that Federer’s era of unrivaled dominance was over.

When Nadal served what proved to be the fatal fourth championship point, Federer sluggishly pushed a forehand back over the net. I remember the following moments very clearly: Nadal giving Federer an opportunity to attack, and Federer inexplicably cracking a forehand into the middle of the net. If you watch closely, you can see Roger breaking one of the most important lessons taught by any tennis professional. It’s something that competitive players dread, and as a former varsity high school player myself, something that will keep you up at night. On that final stroke, Federer finishes his swing low and across his body, with his head quickly moving to his lower left hand side. There can only be one outcome at that point, and it’s an outcome that Federer realized before he even made contact with the ball: game over.

In that moment, Federer may not have realized the enormity of the situation, but his final forehand symbolized the passing of the torch to Rafael Nadal. Before that final forehand had touched the net, he was already walking to the net in a silent gesture of defeat. Make no mistake about it, Roger played an incredible match. And he would be back. But the road ahead would be tough.

Although he would claim four more majors following the 2008 Wimbledon final, Federer would leave six of his eight next grand slam finals without the ultimate prize. He would watch Nadal and Djokovic begin their ascensions to dominance, while battling the mental and emotional exhaustion that accompanies the decline of stardom. Championship matches that were previously decided in five setters began to condense into predictable four set defeats for Roger. However, I believe that Roger can, and will, win at least one more major title before he retires. If I were Fed’s coach, here’s the advice I would give my star pupil:

Bring back the serve-and-volley

When Roger Federer was playing his best tennis, he was completely unpredictable. His strategy was ingrained in a timeless tradition dating back to the 70s and 80s: use the outside serve to set up a comfortable put-away volley. However, the past decade has witnessed the extinction of the serve-and-volley, and watched the best players transition to an exclusively backcourt strategy. Gone are the days of McEnroe, Connors, and Sampras. Federer, if he so chooses, can keep his opponents guessing at all stages of a match if he reverts back to the successful cat-and-mouse game of serving and volleying.

Consider adopting a two-handed backhand

While the one-handed backhand is a staple of Federer’s game, emblematic of the grace and style that has accompanied him throughout his career, it is also susceptible to unforced errors. When Federer was in his prime, he could get away with the occasional errant backhand – he’d compensate by running his opponents all over the court. However, if you look closely at Roger’s last few grand slam finals, you might notice a disturbing trend: his unforced errors are often double those of his competitor. In order for Roger to hang on during long rallies, and hopefully take control of those points, he’ll need to make some changes to his backhand.

Playing fewer matches

According to the USA Today sports section, Federer has played almost three hundred more matches than any other active player on tour. While participating in warm-up tournaments before grand slams certainly prepares a player for the nuances of each particular playing surface, it also takes a tremendous toll on the body. As a competitor playing exclusively for his legacy, Federer should consider bypassing events with lesser-known opponents. With the new time in his schedule, the world’s second-ranked player can focus on conditioning, an essential element of any professional’s regimen, as he advances in age. Federer isn’t known for cranking groundstrokes beyond the reach of his opponents, so focusing on heavy lifting won’t need to be part of his repertoire. With this in mind, Fed should definitely continue to refine his backhand slice, as he’ll need to dictate the pace of points for the remainder of his career.

Change is one of the most difficult aspects of professional sports. Especially when you’re a tennis player – and you’re essentially your own coach on the court – it feels unnatural to deviate from a winning pattern. When Roger was at his best about a decade ago, he didn’t need to change his game. Now, however, the circumstances are a bit different. He’ll no longer be among the strongest and fastest on the court. But he’ll always be one of the smartest. And that’s why Roger will win again – because the best always seem to find a way.  


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Comments 19

  • Two handed backhand must be the most idiotic thing I have heard of changing. Are you a professional player? Do you understand how valuable it is to play warmup tournaments?

  • yes i agree he needs to play less tournaments. simply because id like to see roger play novak before the finals. roger seems to be peaking in the semi finals. he easily swept aside stan and andy at the open and wimbledon. i think a semi final match up will be better for him.. thats my personal opinion i think if stan or andy had of beaten novak they would have had a better chance for those titles that roger did in particular stan because i believe roger can beat novak on grass given the right playing conditions which has been lacking last year and this years final. i agree with the comment about the double handed backhand. he should not change that and i think more of his errors are coming from the forehand or atleast 2 many are. in saying that he plays very aggressive which is why he makes alot of errors – he hits twice as many winners as his opponents too. i believe a grandslam is on his raquet. he needs to serve 70-75%. he did this at last years wimbledon but returned very poorly and i remember it was 3-3 all i believe in the 5th set and he was up 0-30 on djoker serve and missed an easy overhead which could of be triple break point which brings me to my next point. he needs to employ a mental coach or if he has one get a replacement. all he is lacking is a mental element which novak has. roger served terrible at the open in first set just terrible he looked so nervous. i agree he will win 1 more and it will be probably a wimbledon title. as rogers no1 fan i like ya article but not quite the suggestion i would make for him.. cheers

    • sorry was meant to say if andy or stan beat roger they would of had a better shot at the titles this year than roger

      • Stan: Yes, Andy: No

  • what a stupid article!! 1. Hez using Serve volley since a year or more i guess 2. double handed backhand wud be stupidest thing to do at this point of career! I mean are u serious..lol 3. Fewer matchs…well no other player till date has done better planning than Federer! he knows when to take rest and when to play. Thats why hez always fresh……. At this age i think he cant get better than what he is as of now.

    Only thing he can do may be is poise some questions to Djokovic during slams…stay stubborn..mentally strong in first 3 sets. If he can win atleast 2 of first 3 sets he def stands a chance 2 win the slam. Its too much to expect from a 34 year old champ to win last 2 sets against World number 1 who is 6 years younger!

    • Well said

  • I am a huge fan of Federer, and I honestly think it will be very difficult for him to win, except if Djokovic gets injured, what you don’t wish to anyone, they are all great players (all the BIG4) who define the sport and gives the viewers all those fantastic matches.
    His is his biggest problem, its mental, first against Nadal, and since US Open 10 and 11, he has a mental block against Djokovic strangely enough. If you don’t believe me, watch the last Open final, Federer at break-point(s) in the 3rd set suddenly freezening and hitting slow as hell with his forehand.

    That said, I LOVED :) the first paragraph about the missed forehand against Nadal at WIMBY 2008. I love the emotion you put in, that is why I love watching Federer, he moves me emotionally, and I’m a straight guy.

    • He doesnt have a mental block he well capable of beating Djokovic but it has to be 3 sets now. If anything its the pressure in slams knowing that if goes to fight he wont win. If he loses first set in a slam to Novak its as good as over. The matches he has won actainst Novak the last 2 years is anywhere he gets to come to net, watch dubai finals vs wimbledon, conditions allow federer to play his game full throttle.

  • Dear Noah,

    Well written article and I see the love you have for Roger and I share the sentiment. But it’s not his physical approach which is making him loose these championship matches. He runs through every other opponent in all the rounds except against the other top 2 or three players in the final. Do you think he put a foot wrong against Murray in semis this Wimbledon? It’s his mental approach- may be the fear of loosing another grand slam or some other mental block which is coming between him and his next big win. Agreed he has a tendency to make many unforced errors with his back hand, but he puts many winners as well. On the day he is playing like himself there are a very few errors with that backhand.
    Coming to serve and volley, gone are those days of Edberg when every time the player comes to the net the likelihood of winning the point goes up manifold. In this era of hard core physical tennis and baseline stroke making, the predictable serve and volley has no place. It certainly has a shock value if used occasionally.

    But anyways I wish Federer wins at least a couple of grands lam before he bids adieu. Best bet being 2016 Wimbledon and US open. Let’s hope…

  • Rafa winning that Wimbledom was a wonderful time for me as I am a big Rafa fan and not a big fan of Fed tho I love his game.

  • Noah, Not a bad article. Ignore these naysayers. I will say that on one hand you tell Federer to develop a two-handed backhand ( that ain’t happening at his age ), yet on the other you advise refining the backhand slice. Dude, you can’t have both. Very few players have had a two-handed backhand slice. Fabrice Santoro comes to mind, that’s why he was called the Magician.

    Look, I love Federer’s game. His variety is unparalleled. I believe it is that which keeps him competitive with Djokovic at 34 years of age. However, Grand Slams are a young man’s game. Despite clearly being the 2nd best player in the world, Fed can’t roll with a younger, stronger version of himself with Nole at 28. Especially if the court isn’t lightening fast because of Djokovic’s otherworldly defense.

    Roger can definitely win another World Tour Final on London’s quick indoor surface. But history tells us that players past 30-32 just don’t win majors ( even wins at that age are rare Federer 30, Sampras 31 Agassi 32 ). Too hard! Remember Federer beating a primed 35 year old Agassi in the 2005 USOpen final. Agassi hung for 3 sets, that was it. Now Roger is at that age Agassi was.

    Lastly, age 29 seems to be the ‘falling off a cliff’ age. Ask Nadal what’s happened since turning 29. 16 of Roger’s 17 slams came before that age. No, Mr. Federer is going to have to be content with his current major trophy haul. Like John McEnroe says repeatedly, it’s a young man’s game.

  • It’s incredibly ridiculous to suggest adopting a 2 handed backhand at this stage of his career. That’s too naive coming from someone who has played tennis!!
    Of course a one handed BH might be considered a “weakness” in his overall arsenal but he has done a pretty good job using his low slices to get into a position that he wants in a particular point (exception vs Nadal of course due to the match-up).
    According to me, he is already doing almost everything he should in terms of changing tactics, i.e. as aggressive as possible, net play, serve-n-volley. It’s more mental at this stage for him.
    Just consider his last 2 GS finals. Wimbledon 2015 and US Open 2015: He played some unreal tennis until the finals. Lost one set until Wimby finals and no set until USO finals. He played arguably better than ever before, specially the manner in which we won matches. If there was an issue in his game, he should not have been able to achieve this.
    Wimbledon finals, he just shut off. The Fed who played against Murray in SF disappeared. He looked out of sorts throughout the match. Djoker played a great match too.
    The USO however, was more painful. It was a contest of who plays the worst tennis loses. Both looked terrible by their standards. Fed didn’t convert more than 20 break points in the match. The fact that he got a chance to break Djoker more than 20 times in a 4 set match speaks volumes about how the match went.
    Had he converted a couple of them, just a couple, he would be in a great position to win.

    Anyway, the point is his last 2 GS runs have proved his game is great right now. He convincingly beats anyone except Djoker where he somehow loses the mojo. Otherwise, on an even ground, Fed can beat Djoker hands down. He has shown that, but not on big stages.
    I’m very sure he will be a GS contender in 2016. No.18 is not unrealistic, suggesting a two handed BH is.

  • After adopting the two handed backhand , why doesn’t he just become lefty so he can beat nadal ? that sounds practical, right ?

  • Federer’s one handed backhand is not a liability anymore. You are forgetting that players don’t change their style of play all of a sudden. Every human being is a package, you can’t pick and choose like restaurant menu! Federer anyway playes fewer tournament, he tried playing even fewer in last two years that backfired, he has adjusted the level best this year.

    Federer is doing evertthing right. According to me, Federer needs to only toughen up mentally a bit to have an edge over Djokovic. Otherwise, he’s able to beat everybody else on the tour and he has the game to beat Djokovic on his day.

  • Noah,
    I couldn’t eat my breakfast that day in 2008 as it was morning in US. Fed later said that low light was disturbing him, had he made a dim light objection, probably history would have changed. All said, it is hard to make such a major change 2H Backhand. It is almost there. SABR needs to improve a little more to avoid getting lobed. You all should realize that when skill levels are so matched , the younger player gets an advantage forcing the opponent to play that extra shot which catches him by surprise. Fed thought he had a clear winner and Djok returned a floating overhead in the last set which Fed framed while overreaching it.
    I am just wishing he gets one more slam, 17 is prime number but reachable by others.

  • Hi Everyone,

    I appreciate your feedback on my article. A big thank you for taking the time to check it out.

    I want to acknowledge several criticisms of the article. I know at this stage in his career, it would be incredibly difficult for Federer to change his backhand. However, he’s one of the greatest to play of all time, and if anyone could do it, it’s Fed. Keep in mind that the subheading says “consider,” – it’s not set in stone. I understand that a lot of his errors do come from his forehand side.

    In order to win at the world’s greatest stage, you sometimes have to step outside of the box. You have to take risks, and understand that tennis is a game of change. Federer will likely continue to make grand slam finals for years to come, but if he wants to continue to emerge from majors victorious, he may have to change some things.

    Warm-up tournaments are invaluable, I completely agree. With that said, however, he doesn’t have to play in every single tournament leading up to a slam.

    Once again, I appreciate the feedback – it’s great to see so many passionate Roger fans out there.

  • I wish writer’s and speakers would quit referring to the BIG 4! It’s really been the BIG 3 (Fed, Nad, Djo). After them, there’s the occasional winners (Stan and Murray; and Cilic and Delpo). Unfortunate for tennis there’s not too much of a rivalry anymore, it’s almost one way traffic in Djokovic’s favour. Fed is doing monumentally well keeping the number 2 ranking, trying to put up a fight against the # 1 player, but he is human, and must be applauded for his longevity, physically and mentally. Just to reach a final and to play with such skill is something to behold. After so many years of seeing heroic tennis from the BIG 3, it was likely that there would be a void in the talent to come through to challenge the dominance of the top players. I hope it happens sooner than later, otherwise Djok will have an easy time surpassing the Fed’s most acknowledged achievement: 17 grand-slams! I am sure I am one of millions of admiring Fed fans, who yearn for one more glorious grand-slam!

  • Federer has changed a lot during the past 2 years. And he will keep changing, because that’s one of the keys of his success and longevity: he knows there’s always room for improvements and works toward them as if he was a hungry young player seeking his first records. Maybe we won’t see something so drastic like a two handed backhand, but he will try new things for sure.

  • Stamina is one thing that Roger lacks.
    I think changing to double handed backhand is not possible now at this stage of his game. His back hand is not bad, he should play more top spin backhands rather than slices, slice gives more time to his opponent. He should mix it up with slice now and than, more when he needs time.
    I agree with you that he should play fewer matches. He has won some tournaments 7 times which he feels he should play, he is right is doing so.
    Serve and volley he should play more but not on 2nd serve. Coming to the net is another option which he should imply.
    All these things to implement requires a greater amount of concentration on the court.
    There are many more shots in Rogers bag which he should use.