In a field rife with base-line retrievers, counter-punchers, serve-bots, net-rushers, and ball bashers it’s the retriever with exceptional counter-punching abilities that reigns supreme in today’s professional world of tennis. And, the reason for this supremacy rests on the pillars of (A) slower courts and (B) magical strings made possible by amazing advancements in string technology. Now which of those two factors is more responsible merits a debate of its own but there is no doubt in my humble opinion that together, within the last 10 years and since Roger won his maiden French Open trophy in 2009, these two developments have contributed significantly to the birth of three multiple surfaces, all 4, slam winners in so small a time span!
At some point during the Sampras and Ivanesivic era the true powers within the ATP organization decided to do something about the lack of rallies in tennis and ultimately changed the course of our game to its present state of slower courts across different surfaces and thereby put the advantage squarely with the base-line retrievers and counter-punchers. Advancements in string technology made it easier for base line retrievers to convert barely reachable balls into crazy, top-spin loaded, banana-shot type fiery winners, thereby making it all the more difficult for highly aggressive players to set up points and then move in to finish at the net. Serve and volley didn’t put up much of a resistance to the oncoming tsunami of passing shots enabled by magical strings, and gradually faded away with just a handful of proponents left to delight us with that dying art form.
The rise of slower courts coupled with magical strings facilitated the rise and consolidated the dominance of players like Nadal and Djokovic, it was tailor made for them.
So where does Roger fit into these realm altering changes and advancements? An even more important question would be that how did he manage to flourish with his highly aggressive style of play which, back in early 2000s, was all about executing that forehand and then rushing in to finish the point at the net, provided the ball ever made it back.
Roger’s basic tennis DNA requires him to be aggressive and take the ball very-very early, thereby taking time away from the opponent and finishing points rather than waiting for the opponent to make mistakes. In fact Roger is habitual of taking the ball so early that he is a master at playing half-volleys from the base line, and he could somehow get away with it on faster surfaces, but had to stop all that fooling around in the new world which more than anything else demanded blood, sweat and toil for victory.
However, Federer is a unique talent and he could change his game and adapt to the slower courts. He mastered the base-line, but not as a retriever or counter-puncher although he did do his fair share of counter-punching and retrieving when the point absolutely required it. He instead established himself as a shot maker from the baseline and a finisher from anywhere inside it. His forehand became a dreaded weapon which was to be avoided at all cost. Opponents could always go for his backhand, but Roger had age and, with that, speed in his corner and could convert those backhands into forehands. Nadal was the only kryptonite to Roger the Superman and that Kryptonite’s left handed and high-rising top-spin to Roger’s backhand not only made it very difficult for him to execute inside out/in shots without losing court positioning but also made it tough for him to play his single handed backhand on high rising top-spin balls. Luckily, for Roger, Nadal did not make it to too many non clay court finals to face Roger at the other end of the net, so Roger’s dominance continued until 2008-2009. And, then in August 2010 Roger turned 29!!
it took roger some time to realize that an all out base-line style of play was not sustainable any further and it was getting impossible to execute winners from there. Moreover playing from the baseline gave the opponents more time to retrieve even his best shots. Once again, it was time to re-invent and he delved into his vast well of talent and started creating more opportunities to move into the baseline and approach the net more often. It however took him some more time to commit to that playing style and that helped prolong his life as an active professional and maintain his results and ranking relatively high considering his age.
However, against master retrievers such as Djokovic he continued to falter in the five sets format. Something else and more needed to work for him, and it finally did! For some reason they made the court at the Rod Laver arena faster at the AO 2017 and that was all that Roger needed to seize his moment. Even with his much improved back-hand, which should come handy against Nadal the next time they meet, I would not have given Federer a chance against Nadal if the court had not play as fast as it did in the AO 2017.
To make a long story short …. Federer can play at such high levels at 35 because in addition to being so bloody talented he also has an aggressive mindset which compels him to shorten and finish points and therefore not get into protracted rallies which take a heavy toll on the body once a multiple slam winner, and past number one, has crossed 29. Which leads me to my other conclusion that Nole and Nadal must change their mindset and therefore their style of play if they wish to be competitive beyond 32.
Will Federer be able to recreate his AO 2017 performance? Sure, if they make the courts a little faster at the slams to even out the excessive advantage in favor of the retrievers.