Weekend Sport | Tennis

Is this Wimbledon Federer’s last shot at winning a Major?

Roger Federer comes to Wimbledon in tournament-winning form.

Roger Federer comes to Wimbledon in tournament-winning form.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

The previous two years have shown it’s foolish to write the Swiss maestro off. But he is almost 38 — there hasn’t been an older men's singles Grand Slam champion

Roger Federer, by his own admission, thinks grass to him is what clay is to Rafael Nadal. “Grass highlights my strengths and hides my weaknesses,” he said ahead of the Gerry Weber tournament in Halle, which he went on to win for a record 10th time. “I can play how I want and on my terms. It’s maybe how Nadal feels on the clay. He can decide to return from the back, to return from in; I can do the same on the grass. I can chip it, I can come over, I can serve and volley, I can stay back. That gives you options to win. Different tactics you can use against different players. And that gives you maybe more margins you need to stay out of trouble.”

Defying time

Such confidence isn’t misplaced. He is, after all, an eight-time Wimbledon champion. Nineteen of his 102 career ATP World Tour titles have come on grass; that is almost one fifth of his titles on a surface that’s roughly one tenth of the season. When he won Wimbledon in 2017, at 35 years and 11 months, he was its oldest men’s champion. His three Majors after turning 35 (including the 2017 and 2018 Australian Open titles) are a record matched only by the legendary Ken Rosewall. If he manages a fourth two weeks from now, Federer’s beautifully written epilogue might well be as good as the book.

 

To the rational mind, Wimbledon 2019 may be his last realistic shot at a Major. He is nearly 38. Rosewall, when he claimed the 1972 Australian Open to become the oldest Slam winner (37 years and two months), was almost a year younger. Also, that was against a depleted field, with the game hurt by the professional-amateur split. The Aussie did make the final at Wimbledon and US Open in 1974, but both ended in heavy defeats to Jimmy Connors.

Federer comes to Wimbledon in tournament-winning form. His last four non-clay events have fetched three titles (Dubai, Miami, Halle) and one runner-up trophy (Indian Wells). He made an interesting decision to play on clay for the first time in three years. Though he didn’t reach a final, the points-cushion (1,080) perhaps allows him to play pressure-free. “I was really positive about my clay-court swing,” said the Swiss. “I lost against the best clay-court player ever [at Roland Garros]. I tried everything I had in unbelievably windy conditions. I loved it actually. And I left [Paris] very positive.”

Tennis on grass

To be sure, Federer isn’t remotely the player who beat Pete Sampras at his own game in 2001. When he won his first Wimbledon in 2003, he was predominantly a net-rusher. The Federer of today is more a baseline-hugger, with serve-and-volley thrown in as a surprise tactic. Yet, what he plays is distinctly grass-court tennis. No one employs the backhand slice to such devastating effect. On grass, the ball bounces at a lower angle after hitting the turf. The Federer slice lowers the angle further and is a rhythm-breaker, as the ball appears to zip through. By forcing the opponent to act faster, it exaggerates the speed of the court, which, in turn, plays on the mind.

 

Federer’s game, like Sampras’, flows from his serve. There is a case to be made that those who protect their serves well find success on grass. Over the last year, Federer has won close to 77% of his service points on grass and gone on to win 90% of the matches. The numbers for those with a ‘big game’ — a cannonball serve followed by a crushing ground-stroke — are interesting. Milos Raonic (Wimbledon finalist 2016), Kevin Anderson (finalist 2018), John Isner (semifinalist 2018) and Matteo Berrettini (eight straight victories on grass this month) win a high % of service points on grass. This is accompanied by a high match-win %. On hard-courts, the % of points won on serve drops; the match-win % falls even further.

Service Value

On grass (Last 52 weeks)

On hard-courts (Last 52 weeks)

Such an analysis does suffer from the fact that the sample size for grass is quite small owing to the paucity of tournaments. But unlike with other surfaces, it’s easier to extrapolate because the conditions at these grass events are quite consistent, bunched together as these are within the boundaries of just two countries (England and Germany). Moreover, almost every tournament looks to follow the lead of the Wimbledon groundskeeper.

Federer's dominance on grass and hard-courts

What sets Federer apart, especially on grass but also on hard, is that his return numbers are impressive, too. His Dominance Ratio — a measure of all-round quality, calculated by dividing the % of return points won by the % of service points lost — is 1.39 on grass and 1.32 on hard. Novak Djokovic’s on hard — his best surface — is 1.3.

Federer: On hard-courts and grass

Djokovic: On hard-courts and grass

Dominance Ratio is the ratio of return points won (%) to service points lost (%); the higher the better

Moreover, grass-court tennis has another dimension that still resists quantification. Unlike the crushed brick of Roland Garros and the acrylic in Australia and the U.S., grass is a living entity which develops capricious habits. No two balls that land on the same spot bounce the same, even when hit at a similar velocity and angle. What sets Federer apart is the way he counters this with razor-sharp instincts, high skill and last-minute adjustments.

How have others fared

Yet, for all the obvious advantages he enjoys, Federer is far from the dominant force he was on grass for five straight years from 2003 to 2007. In more than a decade since then, he has won Wimbledon just thrice. Anderson and Raonic, with their serve-oriented games, Nadal, with his relentless grinding style, and Djokovic, with his elastic genius, have all had his measure.

Grass is Nadal’s weakest surface but once he survives the big men in the early rounds, he is a genuine threat, as he proved in 2018 with his run to the last four. With the wear and tear over the fortnight, the lawns turn sluggish and the dirt that is exposed, especially near the baseline, helps the ball bounce higher and hang in the air, much to the Spaniard’s liking. This era’s grass is by nature slower and the balls heavier, making this aspect more pronounced. Nadal’s net-game, honed through his years of playing doubles, is first-rate, making him a worthy champion.

Djokovic’s excellence needs some accepting by the purist, despite him having beaten Federer in back-to-back finals in 2014 and 2015. The Serb leaves nothing to chance and plays perfectly calibrated tennis with an unparalleled ability to choose the right moment to transition from defence to attack. The 32-year-old is no ordinary opponent, but someone who shuts you down like a Big Brother state.

Gym rats and musclemen

Ahead of the 2015 final, even the much-criticised British tabloid Daily Mail declared that “real sports fans” would root for Federer. “Federer is supposed to have been overtaken by the gym rats and the musclemen,” it went on, “the men who awe us with their stamina and their shot-making. No one means it as a sign of disrespect to Djokovic but most people who love sport will be hoping Federer makes it a record eight.”

It did take Federer two more years to move past Sampras, but the triumph in 2017 showed what he could do if the circumstances were right. He was healthy, had tweaked his tactics and was playing with a new-found freedom that brought four victories in six tournaments leading up to SW19. The first half of 2019 seems eerily similar. A ninth Wimbledon title remains within the realms of possibility.

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Printable version | Jun 29, 2020 12:24:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/tennis/is-2019-wimbledon-roger-federers-last-chance-of-winning-a-grand-slam/article28211956.ece

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