How did Federer defy age?

By James Beringer

For anyone who hasn’t grown up in Switzerland, it is difficult to explain the influence of Roger Federer in everyday life. The adverts proudly displaying Federer’s face go without saying. From insurance and banks to pasta brands and Lindt, the man’s face is everywhere.

I’ve been in offices where a new coffee machine has been unveiled bearing the trademark grin that unites an entire nation. I’ve been to music festivals where the score in Federer’s matches has been announced to the cheering crowd between songs (he’d won by the way…which I suppose was good for the band playing at the time).

The huge number of tennis clubs, courts and academies throughout the country are testament to the influence Federer has had on the popularity of tennis in a country where the word racquet most commonly refers to a type of shoe.

Despite this, there was growing pessimism in the past few years that Federer would never again reclaim a Grand Slam title. The nation still passionately got behind their man, but the ability to get over the line at major tournaments seemed to have deserted him.

That all changed 12 months ago. Winning the Australian Open as the 17th seed (the lowest ranked winner since 1976), was followed by yet another Wimbledon triumph, and now a successful defence of his title in Melbourne. All of this at an age where many thought he should have been comfortably retired or turned to coaching like other players whose careers overlapped with Federer’s. It says it all that one of them, Ivan Ljubicic, is currently part of Federer’s coaching staff.

He has not just revived a career at the age of 36, he is succeeding at the highest levels of the game, and is in a position where he could potentially regain the number 1 ranking for the first time since 2012. Following his victory against Marin Cilic at this years’ Australian Open, the most ridiculous of all stats emerged – since 1968, 10 percent of Men’s Grand Slams have been won by Federer. This begs the inevitable question of how he has managed to do what many thought impossible.

The most important factor to consider is Federer’s approach to game management – in short, keep it short. During the barren five years between his 2012 Wimbledon title and the 2017 Australian open, Federer struggled to compete with the ‘brute force’ tactics of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Both these players are practitioners of ‘marathon tennis’ where the goal is simply to outlast your opponent. Consequently, the trick to overcoming this style of play is to aggressively end points as quickly as possible.

Against Cilic, this approach proved fruitful. Of the 212 rallies of 0-4 shots, Federer won an impressive 120 compared to Cilic’s 92. By contrast, of the rallies of 5+ shots, Cilic prevailed 36 times compared to Federer’s 32.

On the more technical side, Federer has modified his backhand, taking the ball earlier and driving the ball with heavy topspin into the wider channels of the court. This has enabled him to turn his weaker stroke (weaker here being relative to Rafael Nadal, who’s left handed-ness has proved a source of frustration to Federer for years) into a potent weapon.

It is no surprise that since modifying the stroke, Federer has beaten Nadal four times. Against Cilic, Federer’s new backhand was again present, and the knowledge that for the first time he had no real weaknesses surely contributed to the supreme confidence he displayed throughout the match.

Finally, the serve. Aside from a small wobble in the fourth set against Cilic where his first serve percentage dropped to 36 percent (thus allowing thousands of amateur players to make the somewhat dubious claim that they are equally capable of serving as the reigning Australian Open Champion), Federer was able to effectively use his serve to push Cilic as wide as possible.

While for the less able amongst us it might be tempting to simply hit each serve as hard and as fast as possible, Federer’s serve plan is a useful reminder that precision and control will usually outwit pure brawn. Hitting his first serve slightly slower than Cilic, Federer placed heavy spin on the ball and often opted to serve wide whenever the score was locked at deuce or when either player had advantage.

Pushing your opponent out wide logically creates enormous space throughout the rest of the court, enabling the server to endpoints within one or two strokes. Despite having a first serve percentage that was lower than Cilic’s (60 percent vs 62 percent), Federer’s win percentage when the serve was in was vastly higher (80 percent vs 69 percent – are you sick of stats yet?).

Through effectively placing his first serves, Federer was also able to out-ace Cilic, hitting a total of 24 aces compared to Cilic’s 16. In terms of overall points, aces constituted nearly 16 percent of all Federer’s points – an invaluable contribution to his title defence.

The second point lies in Federer’s’ season-long management that fully takes into account his age and capabilities. At 36, his team realise that he cannot hope to compete over long seasons as he had done in the past and have revised his schedule accordingly. In 2017, Federer played 14 tournaments. By contrast in 2004 and 2006, Federer appeared in 19 tournaments.

On the surface that doesn’t seem like a huge decrease, but looking at the number of matches played really hammers home the difference. In 2017, Federer played 57 matches (winning 52 of them), down 40 matches from 2006 when he played 97 (winning 92).

But the management success of Federer’s team goes far beyond simply skipping the occasional tournament. Fans will recall that Federer opted to miss the clay court season last year, in the hope of regaining Wimbledon later that year. Clay has historically been Federer’s ‘weakest’ (again I use the term weaker as being relative to Nadal – making the French Open final 5 times is a pretty handy achievement), but the surface is also slower, the ball sits up more, the rallies are longer, and as such the physical demands of the clay court season are significantly higher than on other surfaces.

In comparison, grass court tennis is quick and is best suited to a serve-and-volley approach (there’s a reason why Pete Sampras won 7 Wimbledon titles yet never reached the French Open final). The turnaround between the end of the clay court season and the beginning of the grass season is so short that winning both Roland Garros and Wimbledon is considered one of tennis’ ultimate achievements (since 1968, only four men and six women have managed to pull it off – Laver, Borg, Nadal and Federer himself).

Needless to say, choosing to avoid a gruelling schedule that was unlikely to reap any rewards – let’s face it, there was probably no way Federer would have beaten Nadal at last year’s French Open – was perhaps one of the most important decisions Federer and his team made last year.

So where does that leave us? Despite the internet going into meltdown when Federer forgot to say “see you next year” after the Australian Open, it seems unlikely that Federer is done just yet (the AO’s decision to replace the legendary Kia Man probably threw him off, in my mind the most likely reason as to why he was crying during the presentation).

He is surely in with a huge chance of defending his Wimbledon title later this year, and – who knows – may even have a shot at equalling the Grand Slam count of Serena Williams. Whatever the outcome, I feel the best course of action for fans is simply to sit back and enjoy what is surely the greatest twilight to a sporting legend’s career in the history of not just tennis, but sport in general. Long may it continue.

Photograph: Yann Caradec via Flickr

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