Decoding the genius of Roger Federer

But by assigning just aesthetic pleasure to Federer's tennis, are we missing hitherto untapped insights?   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In a piece he wrote for the New Yorker following Roger Federer’s defeat to Novak Djokovic at the U.S Open semifinals in 2011, writer Nick Paumgarten captured the feeling of what it means to root for Federer: “The point is that to root for Federer is to root for a Platonic ideal. It is like rooting for the truth.”

Decoding the genius of Roger Federer

In Plato’s scheme, the concepts of truth and beauty are closely related. And Federer's tennis has always been described as beautiful. John McEnroe, the sport’s previous presiding genius, once called him “the most perfect player” — almost suggesting that this is how the game should be played.

Most writers trying to decode Federer’s game have resolved to explaining its visual appeal — calling it an ‘art form’, or a ‘religious experience’ or even a ‘permanent miracle’. But by assigning just aesthetic pleasure to his tennis, are we missing hitherto untapped insights? Federer’s grandeur has never been about statistics. Which begs the question — do the stats illuminate the story? Can the genius of Roger Federer be broken down into numbers?

Author Mark Hodgkinson’s latest book, Fedegraphica, tries to answer that. Hodgkinson has written six books exploring the gamut of tennis, but with Fedegraphica, he ventures into seemingly unchartered territory. Using numbers, along with interviews with those close to Federer and conversations with his rivals and other coaches, the book provides a detailed data analysis of just what the Swiss maestro’s game is made up of. The book describes itself as a ‘graphic biography of the genius of Roger Federer.’

“You can appreciate his game on two levels,” the author tells The Hindu. “You can appreciate it as an art form, savour the beauty in it. But then again, more and more people these days are also interested in the numbers. They want to make comparisons between his various serves, his backhand and forehand speeds and how he plays particular points.”

Fedegraphica, for instance, illustrates how Federer generates more spin on his backhand than most of his rivals. A ball that has just encountered the might of a Federer backhand clocks as many as 5,300 revolutions per minute (RPM). That’s significantly more spin than Rafael Nadal’s two-hander (4,300 RPM); also Novak Djokovic’s (2,800) and Andy Murray’s (2,500).

Decoding the genius of Roger Federer

While much has been said about Federer’s backhand, Fedegraphica also delves deep into what makes his serve that most lethal weapon it is. Hodgkinson writes how while it is tempting and easy to romanticise Federer’s tennis and believe that he plays on instinct, the truth is that he thinks more about the strategies in the sport than anyone else.

Federer’s ball-toss is the tennis equivalent of Pavlov’s bell, triggering responses he has conditioned in his opponent. The book describes it as “Federer’s Pavlov’s Dog Experiment – a secret study involving a racket, a ball and a salivating opponent waiting to receive serve.”

Federer faced several break-points against Nadal during the course of the 2017 Australian Open final, but he often managed to serve up the quintessential ace, not struck with maximum power, but still deceptively quick. So, which is his go-to serve when he needs an ace? Down the ‘T’ and not out wide, reveal the stats. Fedegraphica also says he is much more likely to hit an ace to the advantage court (62%) than he is to the deuce court (38%). Indeed, 40% of all Federer’s aces are down the ‘T’ of the ad court.

Decoding the genius of Roger Federer

Late American author David Foster Wallace, in his famous New York Times essay, wrote about how Federer’s classical game was “like trying to whistle Mozart at a Metallica concert”. Indeed, central to the myths surrounding Federer is that he does not have a single sweat gland in his body and that he floats across the court.

“The next time you watch him play on TV, turn up the volume to a dangerously high level,” Hodgkinson suggests. “You can barely hear the hush of his feet.”

But what can be confirmed by official IBM statistics presented in the book is that Federer has the most economical on-court movement. In 2015, Federer covered the least distance per point amongst the Big Four at the Grand Slams – 9.7 metres.

Fedegraphica tries to intersperse just the right amount of infographics with personal anecdotes. For every comparison of his forehand and backhand winners, there’s a heart-warming story about how Federer interacts with the man who strings his racquet everyday. For every dissection of his service pattern, there’s a story of how his parents Robert and Lynette almost threatened to stop driving him to tournaments when he was young. “I was initially scared because I thought all this data would somehow take away the artistry from his game. But I don’t think it does,” Hodgkinson says.

Decoding the genius of Roger Federer

The book is replete with records set and broken by Federer – 302 weeks as World No.1, five consecutive Wimbledon and U.S Open titles, to name a few. But Hodgkinson is quick to point out the one shot that has stood out for him.

Is it the tweener?

“No, it’s the SABR,” he says.

The opponent serves, but Federer has already tiptoed his way just short of the service line to make a half-volley return – a shot the author describes as the boldest, most innovative approach to a point imaginable, a shot that risked making Federer look like a fool. He played it anyway, first at the 2015 Cincinnati Masters and then at the U.S. Open the same year, going on to name it SABR or “Sneak Attack by Roger”.

“Naming his invention was not as important as what it signified – here is a man who, just days after turning 34, was willing to reinvent his game. That is what will stand out in any era.”

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 6:46:39 AM |

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