How to play — and beat — ROGER FEDERER

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Roger Federer is often compared with a ballerina. He’s graceful. He floats. His matches are a Master Class.

Imagine playing him. You’d call him the Swiss Assassin, not the Swiss Maestro.

 

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He’s ruthless. He’s stealthy. He sneaks up on you early, and puts relentless pressure on your serve — and your neck — in the opening games of the match. When he gets ahead of you in a match, he doesn’t look back. He pounces like a jaguar, and goes for the jugular. He slams you to the mat, and you don’t get up until it’s time to shake hands at the net and congratulate him. Then he’s a nice guy, smiling like the Buddha.

 

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But while he’s slaying you, he’s enchanting you. His slice is a thing of beauty. The ball floats like a butterfly, drifts away from you and dies gently alone in the corner.

 

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And while you’re admiring that, the weight of his forehand topspin can sprain your wrist. (In Toronto, Federer hit a forehand so hard from the net, Jo Wilfried Tsonga jumped out of the way, though Tsonga was behind the baseline.)

You’re good enough to play Roger Federer on Centre Court, so your confidence is high. Federer’s agility and court coverage breaks your will to go for winners. You feel like you’re playing against a wall without holes. Even on an overhead, you worry he’ll get it back. With Federer getting to everything, you can only hope that he misses.

 

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You think you can hit winners to his backhand corner? He routinely beats you to it, hitting run-around inside-out forehands from the doubles alley or wider. He gets you in his trap — his forehand to your backhand — and you can’t get out.

So you nail a shot to his forehand corner, but slightly short. He moves forward, flicks his wrist, and the ball is suddenly behind you in your forehand corner.

What really gets you, when you’re playing him, is his little squash shot to defend his forehand wing. He can hit it with spins and precise placement while you’re at the net thinking you’ve already won the point.

 

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You think you’ve rattled him with a great shot? Fed wipes his face with his wrist band, or inspects the strings on his racquet, or ponders the next point. That’s it. You didn’t even put a dent in him.

 

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So you hang back, and hope he misses. You got a nice rhythm going from the baseline? Federer will drop shot you, draw you into net, then use it as an approach shot to charge the net and beat you with a volley or maybe a lob.

 

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You’re never comfortable playing him. He can find a way to attack you at any moment from any position.

He gets into net so fast, with measured footwork, that he can attack the net almost anytime he wants.

He doesn’t just hit volleys. He stings them with deadly accuracy. Most players can hit a volley into open court. Fed pinpoints a hole in your defense and threads it.

And did we mention his forehand? He can whack it from any height, anywhere on the court. You are never safe with that weapon lurking around.

 

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Maybe you’re a big server, like Raonic or Isner, and all you need is one break of serve. Your serve is faster than his, and you get more aces.

But Federer’s serve is more effective.

Too much is made about the speed of someone’s serve. Federer’s placement is more lethal. You can return a 230 km/h serve hit straight into the sweet spot of your racquet. But you can’t even reach a spin serve into a sharp angle and kicking wide and low. And if you try to cover that, Federer will seemingly walk over and place the ball on the T down the middle. Good luck covering that.

 

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You can’t do much with his second serve either. To see the topspin on his second serve, watch how high it kicks up off the net chord.

Still, you’ve got a break point in ad court, say 30-40. You’re pumped up to change the match now. But now you’re in trouble, because Federer’s greatest weapon is his ability to hit a sharp angle serve into a right-hander’s backhand. It’s the hardest serve to hit, and Federer is the best ever at it.

 

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Despite popular myth, he does have a temper in various languages, but he’s also adept at adjusting his emotions, and tactics, on the fly. You can see him thinking on the court.

 

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Sometimes, (for example against Tsonga in Toronto) Federer’s A game isn’t there. He misses forehand winners or backhands. So he goes to plan B: serve and volley.

Suddenly, you can’t float a safe return down the middle. You have to go for winning passing shots, even if he’s not coming in this time. Now you’re thinking about your return, you’re out of your comfort zone, and Federer is dictating the point.

As an addendum to plan B, Federer can knock you off balance with his chip and charge game. You’re deep to defend, and Federer hits a short ball with no bounce, and all you can do is pop it up to him at the net for a sitter volley.

 

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So, how do you beat him?

Ask Nadal. Be a left-handed brute with sick topspins kicking high into Federer’s backhand. Protect your own serve, hit aces and body blows. Hit dipping passing shots to his backhand, and hope he misses or nets a drop volley. Keep firing away at his one-hand backhand, especially if he’s struggling to come over it, which is one of the toughest shots in tennis unless your Richard Gasquet. Hope he makes mistakes.

Federer has so many weapons and choices, he can sometimes confuse himself with indecision. He can get in two minds about his backhand. (“Do I hit a slice or come over it for topspin?”)

Prone to attack, Federer doesn’t always have a good rhythm from the baseline. He gets into deep funks where he flubs backhands and misses forehand winners.

He’s not always patient. He wants to win fast and move on. Slow the game down, dribble a lot on your serve, as Nadal and Djokovic do.

Now that he’s 33, you can tire him out in a 5-set match, especially if you’re Novak Djokovic and can play 6 hours in Australian heat.

If you’re lucky, maybe his back will hurt, or he’ll be exhausted from playing night matches, signing autographs and doing pressers in four languages.

But most of all, you just hope. When you’re playing Roger Federer, that’s all you really have.

 

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— text and photographs copyright Christopher Johnson, Globalite Media —

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