Nature and nurture have combined to persuade the Swiss away from the net
Roger Federer, after picking apart the left-handed Mischa Zverev at Halle, seemed almost rueful. “I think it’s disappointing for a serve-and-volley player to go down (6-0, 6-0),” he said. “It shows also how much easier it is to hit passing shots or returns in this day and age.”
Perhaps Federer was merely being charitable. But his words, to those even a little inclined to read meaning into things, appeared to contain a longing for his younger, scruffier days when, if not an incorrigible net-rusher, he was a willing volleyer. Indeed the Federer that beat Pete Sampras in 2001 or the one that won his first Wimbledon title in 2003 bear little resemblance to the Federer of today.
Sampras had then perceived in his successor an echo of his own style. But so markedly has Federer’s grass game evolved that Sampras was recently moved to say, “I love watching Roger, Nadal, Djokovic, but it’s sad to see Wimbledon with everyone staying back.”
Where Sampras’s seven Wimbledon crowns came from his interpretation of the tenets of serve-and-volley tennis — emphasising the first stroke a little more than the second — Federer’s seven have come from a strategic retreat to the baseline.
Sampras’s serve took care of a lot. And while he mightn’t have had John McEnroe’s, Stefan Edberg’s or Pat Rafter’s finesse at the net, he had a first-rate put-away volley and the most militant half-volley pick-up. Consider the explosive athleticism, the uncommonly long wingspan even for one 6ft 1in tall, the exceptional vertical jump, and one wonders how he was ever passed or lobbed.
Federer still plays distinctly grass-court tennis. No one uses the backhand slice as he does, knifed short and floated long, to gain court position and to fracture rhythm. Few have moved as naturally on grass. And in the long tradition of the masters of grass, Federer sets the table with his serve. But despite knowing how to arrive at the net, he doesn’t volley remotely as well as he once did.
There’s no doubt the volley is a disenfranchised stroke even at Wimbledon: better ground-stroke technique and string technology, larger racquet frames, heavier balls and slower, high-bouncing grass have ensured this. But while it explains Federer’s reluctance to volley, it doesn’t shed light on why he has lost some of his ability to.
A part of it is mechanical; he doesn’t do it as often, and a skill doesn’t stay sharp unless it’s repetitively honed. Besides, his stroke — which employs a busier, more creative racquet head to apply under-spin and angle — challenges timing. Not even a genius can get away with it consistently. His feet seem less precise up front as well.
The other part of it is mental: his instincts now are a back-court player’s. He took to serve and volley because he had grown up on Becker and Edberg, but also, he said, because he didn’t believe he could beat, from the baseline, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan-Carlos Ferrero, and David Nalbandian. “Then I couldn’t believe how great I became from the baseline and, because it was working so well, I just maintained that.”
As the actor grew into his part, the stage readied itself. The hardier strain of grass, introduced in 2001, and the harder, compacted soil, which it allowed underneath, prevented the ball from “dying fast”, as Vijay Amritraj described it. But it was still faster than anything else on tour, making it perfect for Federer’s hybrid, attacking game of transitions.
Just as nature and nurture had combined to draw Sampras to the net, they combined to persuade Federer, for all his love of the style, away from it.
As the 31-year-old Federer seeks an unprecedented eighth title, and a mighty tough assignment it looks, one can’t help but wonder how Sampras would have gone on today’s grass against the modern baseliner. However that might have played out, it’s hard to see him deserting the net.