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.