Another Grand Slam, another Semi Final appearance for Roger Federer, but a trend may be starting to emerge, as he struggled to make inroads into the game of Andy Murray. Despite being the number 3 ranked player, Andy Murray has looked over the past 6 months to be the man most likely to join Djokovic at the top of the men’s game, displacing Federer at number 2 in the process. While it seems that Federer still belongs at the top of the sport, there are signs that his Grand Slam victories from now on, if any, will be few and far between.
Roger Federer was in sublime touch going into the Semi Final against Andy Murray. With 4 straight sets wins against quality opponents, and a tough five setter against Jo Wilfried Tsonga, everything was in place for a shot at an 18th Grand Slam title. He hadn’t dropped serve leading into the Quarter Final, giving up a measly 4 break points along the way, the domination on the baseline was there and he was neutralising the big hitters in Tomic, Raonic and Tsonga along the way. All the signs were positive, but this new breed of tennis player being shaped by Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic proved too much for Federer.
There are many reasons these pose bad matchups for Federer, but mainly, it is the defence of these two players which take away an edge he would gain over any other opponent. Djokovic and Murray have taken the defensive aspect of tennis, and taken it to another level as Tommy Paddock wrote about during the Australian Open. In this current era of tennis, it simply isn’t good enough to defend for the sake of defending, just to get the ball back into play and somehow ease back into the point. Djokovic and Murray have one goal in mind when defending: turning defence into offence as quickly as possible.
Traditionally, the mode of turning defence into offense was done through a series of strokes, exhibited perfectly by Roger Federer. Through the classic slice backhand, which saves a lot of time by slowing the rally up, he can get back into a neutral court position. Of course exceptional court coverage is also a must when defending, another trait which Federer has shown over the years. To this day, Federer is still extremely effective at defending which holds him in good stead against the majority of opponents.
Taking a look at the new model of defence however, there are many things which have to be put into place in order to execute it not just well, but perfectly. Firstly, there needs to be exceptional court movement for obvious reasons, but mainly to ensure that they can be in the correct position to execute not only a defensive shot, but strokes that can be played with conviction. Djokovic and his brand of court coverage is unparalleled in this era of tennis, and maybe of all time. His ability to slide to wide shots, even on the hard court enables him to recover more quickly to the centre of the court. While Murray doesn’t do this as well as Djokovic, his superior speed around the court makes up for this. Secondly, there needs to be high levels of strength, in both the legs and in their shots. Looking at Djokovic and Murray, both of them possess double handed backhands, which adds the strength of their left hand in driving through the ball, as well as legs that are able to withstand a 5 hour, 5 set epic. And finally, even though traditionally, it wasn’t part of the defensive mould, the ability to hit a convincing shot from a defensive position. The combination of the above traits plays a huge role in this, but also the courage to go for these big shots under pressure is what swings many matches into their favour.
It’s no secret that Federer isn’t as quick around the court as he was in his prime. Watching old footage of him is something to behold, and only then do you realise what a defensive machine he has been throughout his career. What also becomes apparent when comparing his current play to his 2003-2008 years is what he’s changed to make up for the fact he has lost half a step. His return game has changed slightly, where now he may be more inclined to hit a topspin return on the backhand wing to take time away from his opponent who is recovering from his service motion. In his dominant years where his movement was at its best, Federer was content with slicing the return back into play and then working his way back into the rally with excellent defensive slices and impeccable shot placement. Nowadays, especially against Djokovic and Murray, he cant afford to do this, as they’ll take advantage of any weaker reply that Federer may offer. Another noticeable difference is his aggression on his backhand. This may have been an extension on a tactic he brought into playing Nadal, where his crosscourt backhand would take time away from Nadal on his forehand. In both cases, a more aggressive game plan has kept him at the top of the game, and will continue to do so.
So after analysing these aspects of Federer’s game, as well as what his opponents bring, is it possible for Federer to win more Grand Slams? Very much so. He is possibly the most efficient player in the history of tennis. Despite maybe losing half a step, he still seems to glide around with his magnificent footwork, and his game is still as brilliant as it has ever been. Looking at his Semi Final loss to Murray at the Australian Open, Federer fans should feel secure in the fact that Fed still has more in him. Despite not playing at his highest level and Murray playing unbelievably well, Fed was able to push it deep into a 5th set.
One thing every tennis fan knows is to never write off Roger Federer. So many questions in the past have been raised about his longevity at the top of the men’s game, namely after his defeat to Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open Final, and when he dropped to world number 4 at the end of 2011. Both times he came back in tremendous fashion, winning the French Open, completing his career Grand Slam, and then rising to the number 1 ranking again to take Pete Sampras’ record for most weeks spent at the top of the sport. During these so called ‘career slumps’, he took out Novak Djokovic twice, first at the 2011 French Open to end the Serb’s amazing 43 match win streak and again at Wimbledon in 2012. Keeping those in mind, and the fact that Fed could be in better form now than during those periods, it would be silly to write him off.
Despite questions about his movement, especially on defence, Roger Federer is still as lethal as ever, especially when he gives himself the opportunity by playing on the baseline. It is conceivable that without the greatest all round game of all time, he may be completely irrelevant at his age, but it may also be his underrated defence that still keeps him at the top of the game. Either way, watching this man work his craft on the court is something that every tennis fan should make the most of while he is still around, because believe it or not, it will end one day. What will surely be a very sad day for tennis is still a while away, but with favourable surfaces at Wimbledon and the US Open still to come this year, there is every chance he can push his tally of Grand Slams even higher.