Every so often, a sporting colossus emerges who blends athleticism with artistry, effortlessness with energy, making even the most fair-weather fan feel they’ve witnessed something majestic. Football has Zidane, basketball has Jordan, baseball has Ruth, and tennis – well, tennis has Federer. At the age of 35 he has a 93.9% win average for the season, and his Grand Slam at Wimbledon puts him one away from 20 major victories.
In R-Fed’s case, the man’s racket might as well be a paintbrush, such is the ease with which he plays. Few have generated more awe in the men’s game, even now, in the twilight of his career, having just won a record-breaking eighth Wimbledon title. But what is the reason for his brilliance? What does he do better than the rest of the pack? And what do the experts see in his game the regular fans don’t?
Ahead of the US Open later this month, Martin Weston, National Coach for the Lawn Tennis Association, analyses the Swiss’s game and tells RISING what 99% of fans probably don’t see.
RISING Why is Federer the best in the business, and what are most of us missing about his game?
MARTIN WESTON ‘There’s no better mover on the tennis court than Federer. His length of stride, his balance and his poise are incredible. His forehand looks like he has so much time because he’s always behind the ball, always balanced. Instead of just watching him hit the ball, watch him for a whole rally to see how well he moves. Most people don’t realise he creates separation angles when he prepares to hit, even down to the position of the right foot when rotating on the forehand. He doesn’t open his foot quite as much as other players, which creates torque on the knee joint.’
‘Accurate, impossible to read – Federer’s serve is the most underestimated in the sport’
RISING How does that affect his signature forehand?
MW ‘Well, the torque accumulated on the knee joint is felt in the hip and the shoulders, making the body rotate back at speed, a little bit like a shot-putter or a discus thrower. Throughout his career, Federer's worked with trainers from track and field backgrounds who focus on body speed, developing power through segmentation, turning one part of the body against another part. Shoulders rotating beyond hips, hips rotating behind knee joints, knee joints rotating beyond ankles – hence why he has such an efficient forehand, because his big body parts do all the work.’
RISING But actually directing the shot takes brilliance too?
MW ‘Partly yes – his racket is held so loosely, he’s so relaxed in his hands and his arms, that all his wrist does is give him a bit of snap and direction at the end of the stroke. The main power is generated from the big muscles. They’re powering the stroke and the fine tuning is done by the wrist and the hand.'
RISING If his forehand is his signature, what's the most underrated shot in his armoury?
MW ‘His serve – it’s so underestimated. There’s the accuracy, he can swing the ball out wide to the deuce court [right side] or hit down the T with the same ball toss, his swing doesn’t change, his shoulders barely turn and yet he’s able to make the adjustment to the contact point just prior to the hit. You really can't prepare for it. It’s impossible to read.’
‘His backhand was his weakest shot, but now he’s finding the outside edge of the ball, hitting it earlier at the top of the bounce’
RISING What has given him such longevity in the sport and keeps him at the top?
MW ‘The beauty of his game is how he holds serve so quickly so often. The next time you watch him, see how many service games he wins in under minute, just serving unreturnable serves or serves into areas that make his opponent drop their returns short. It’s so efficient and time-saving that he ends up spending significantly less time on court than other top players, who fight to hold serve. Add that up throughout his career and it’s a massive energy saver, and why he’s still playing his best tennis in his mid-30s.’
RISING So what parts of his game has he had to adapt for this recent renaissance?
MW ‘One major shift in his game is that he's now finding more of the outside edge of the ball with his backhand, breaking the tramline a lot more. My reasoning for this would be that he’s turning slightly earlier, creating more width with his backhand, opening someone like Rafael Nadal up, certainly into the Spaniard’s forehand corner, which is a real advantage going into the final weeks of the major championships against the big players.'
RISING What else gives him the edge over the likes of Rafa right now?
MW ‘He's now taking the ball earlier, at the top of the bounce. To the spectator, it will look as though he’s hitting the ball flatter because there’s a higher contact and it goes slightly lower over the net. It’s benefitted his backhand, no doubt.'
‘He’s able to prioritise the process of what he does rather than the outcome – he’s not afraid to miss big’
RISING Compared to the firebrands at the top, he seems unflappable – how much has Federer’s mental strength had a part to play in his wins?
MW ‘Federer seems to be one of the most relaxed of all the players on court, and in fact one of the most relaxed players I’ve ever seen. What’s often overlooked is how he rationalises situations – he clearly realised from very early on that if he’s to be the best then he must be brave enough to go for his shots, and certainly plays his very best tennis when other players play safe to keep the ball in court. Sport psychologists would probably say he’s able to prioritise the process of what he does rather than the outcome of what he does. He’s not afraid to miss and he’s not afraid to miss big.’
RISING And how about his shot selection under pressure? Is it all natural, or is it speed of thought?
MW ‘Something top players do very well is ensuring their shots – and Federer is a classic example of this – have a place within the game. This is where shot selection is born out of the compulsive desire to win, no matter the angle. When I watch beginners playing they can get too obsessed with how to hit the ball and the technique, rather than thinking “why?” and “where is this ball going?”. Every single shot Roger plays, whether it’s a knifing slice that stays low to get his opponent to lift the ball, or an aggressive half volley to take him into the net, are often invented in the moment. Necessity is the mother of invention.’
RISING Is that mentality applicable to the amateur player?
MW ‘Absolutely – my advice would be to just try and solve the game rather than get bogged down by what grip to have and putting spin on it. Just play, compete, solve the puzzle, and you’ll know there’s no finer player at doing that than Federer.’
WHAT NEXT? Can Federer make it a hat-trick of grand slam titles in 2017 at the US Open? However the result goes you can put some of the insights above into action on your local courts – in the UK you can benefit from the LTA’s ‘Go Hit It’ campaign, finding your nearest courts by clicking here.