(One Aspect of) Federer’s Brilliance

23 Jan

Fed second serve

Writing about the brilliance of Roger Federer as a tennis player would prove a voluminous affair. So, let me just focus, in this piece, on one aspect of the maestro’s game: the second serve.

Serving for the match at 5-3 in the fifth set against Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, Federer went down 0-15, after an emphatic series of ground strokes pushed the Swiss back on to his heels and elicited the error. Tsonga, who has a flare for the dramatic, and had just fended off a match-point during his service game at 2-5, sensed an opportunity. The crowd egged on the Frenchman, longing as it was for the intense action on the hard court to extend for as long as possible.

With the weight of the moment on his shoulders, Federer stepped-up to serve at 0-15, and promptly missed his first attempt, giving the free-swinging Tsonga a mouth-watering opportunity to attack the Swiss’ second-serve and send him into a deep hole, at 0-30.

Faced with such unsavory conditions, mere mortals would shirk from the situation, either playing a very conservative second serve to guard against a potential double fault, or recklessly go for broke, hitting the ball as hard as they could in an all-or-nothing ploy for a quick point.

Federer did neither. Instead, the calm and collected Swiss hit a safe, but effective, slice serve that landed just inside the tee, sliding away from and effectively neutralizing Tsonga’s monstrous forehand. The Frenchman played a solid, but not punishing, return back to Federer, who moved into the point at no disadvantage. After an extended rally, during which Tsonga played a series of aggressive shots and had Federer on the move, the Frenchman committed an error, leveling the game at 15-all.

Now, when one finds one’s self deep in the fifth set of the quarter-finals of a major tournament, 15-all is light years away, in terms of pressure, from 0-30, the deficit Federer would have faced had he dropped the 0-15 point. Losing that point also seemed to bring Tsonga’s confidence back down to Earth, realizing, as he did, that Federer was dialed-in and would not let him coast to the service break and bring the match back on-serve.

Steadily, and efficiently, Federer stepped-up to the line at 15-all, and executed a well-placed first serve that forced an error from the Frenchman, bringing the score to 30-15 and lowering, still more, the pressure level. At 30-15, Federer, feeling increasingly confident, hit another penetrating first-serve, inducing a floating return from Tsonga, which the Swiss seized on with a powerful volley winner, to earn two match points and a spot in the semi-finals. Realizing the Frenchman’s uncanny ability to produce winners and turn the momentum quickly, Federer did not miss his chance, capturing the first match point of the game, and his second of the match, with a confident, and aggressive, point that saw him take the initiative with a flurry of aggressive ground-strokes, come to net, and cap the match with a cross-court backhand volley winner.

The final game – which Fed won at 15 – will appear to those who didn’t watch, or who don’t understand the monumental pressure of serving out a tight match with much on the line, as routine, just another near-flawless serving performance by the Swiss legend to secure yet another victory. However, getting inside the pressure of the moment, one begins to understand that Federer’s victory had strong roots in that second serve at 0-15, when the belief of his French opponent was soaring, the crowd was crowing for more tennis, and just one miscue on the service motion could well have resulted in a service return winner or, worse, a double-fault. Instead, the master delivered precisely what the doctor ordered, and marched on to victory.

There are many things that make Roger Federer great: his powerful forehand, textbook volleys, and cat-like movement and anticipation. However, it is the steely resolve and ice cold nerves he demonstrated on his second serve at 0-15 against Tsonga that have allowed the Swiss to remain atop men’s tennis for over ten years and etch out the most accomplished career the game has ever known.

As a Federer disciple, I’ve watched – and agonized over – countless of his matches. Today, as he hits the twilight of his career, I’ve become fascinated by how Federer has evolved his game to stay one step ahead of his younger, quicker, harder-hitting counterparts. Today, the Swiss relies less on the crushing, impossibly angled shots he used to blow opponents off the court during his prime. Instead, he now thrives on placement, patterns, anticipation, and understanding how best to neutralize his opponent. Federer’s evolution represents something akin to the way Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant moved away, in the latter stages of their NBA careers, from the penetration and high-flying bravado that marked their early seasons in the league. As they aged, these champions began relying more on the fade-away jumper, drawing fouls, and understanding holes in their opponents’ defense, to remain elite players.

As a fan, it may have been easier to watch Federer decimate opponents with blistering forehands and untouchable serves. However, armed with a ready supply of antacids, I appreciate how this great champion finds ways to maintain effectiveness and continue competing for major titles. Federer’s second serve in the final game of his Australian Open quarter-final victory against Tsonga represents as good an example as any of this remarkable development.


One Response to “(One Aspect of) Federer’s Brilliance”


  1. Stanislas Wawrinka: The People’s Champion | The Meeting Place - January 24, 2014

    […] a master of precision, aggression, fluidity, and sheer style on the court.  Much has been said about Fed’s brilliance, so I say no more. (Watch and just try to resist the urge to pick up […]

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