Federer Mixes Artistry and Grace with Disguise and Sheer Power
Mesmerizing. I cannot take my eyes off Federer. I marvel at his pinpoint accuracy, uncanny shot selection, fluid movement, and the breathtaking angles he creates - he has obviously got it all - and we are the richer for it.
Tennis is as much art as science, as much dance as explosion, as much grace as power. And he beckons each of us in our own "mortal way" to try and play just a little smoother, move just a little more gracefully, and experiment with a wider array of shots - to loosen up and "try something different."
Roger Federer - Artistry, Grace, and Power.
A few years ago at a tennis conference in London, a Czechoslovakian tennis pro presented data on developing international junior players. He had studied how well the best international juniors did after they became young adults - that is, did the highest ranked juniors become the highest ranked adults? Interestingly, he noted that in many instances the juniors who applied themselves less diligently were less prone to burn out and more likely to have successful professional careers. He noted Federer and Kafelnikov as two examples of international caliber players who "goofed off" as juniors but flourished as adults.
To my eye a different explanation comes to mind. There is creativity in shot selection, freshness to the feel for the court and nuance in shot selection that is destroyed by overtraining. With apologies to her trainer, I suspect just that thing is occurring with Henin Hardene.
Tennis is not all about explosion - the racquet can still be used as a paint brush and the court as one's palette. Can all the players adopt such an attitude? Certainly not. However, are there players who might lose even an inkling of such a feeling from overtraining? Definitely.
Click photo to hear Jim McLennan talk about Roger Federer's ability to disguise his shots.
So the recent men's US Open final was not so much a contest between Federer and Hewitt, but rather a stage where Hewitt engaged Federer so we could marvel at the latter's skills.
Hewitt reached the final without the loss of a set; he won the US Open series of tournaments leading up to the Open, and is clearly at this point the #2 player in the world. But tenacity, court coverage, and a fighter's heart are no match for a virtuoso performance. John McEnroe and Mary Carillo, as taken as the rest of us with Federer's majesty, made comments that provide further discussion. Mac noted, "Federer is just so hard to read," and Mary followed with "Federer makes the court appear small."
As much as anything, those two comments capture the sum total of the Federer game. He strikes the ball with uncanny disguise. And his combination of depth, placement and wicked angles, affords opponents scant opportunities to create anything. The court appears small because they have no where to hit.
Often, the pros anticipate one another and start moving just prior to the opponent's hit, moving in all likelihood to the ball. If they anticipate and start too early, the opponent can play behind them, but generally this form of anticipation is merely a way to get a jump on the ball. Federer holds the point of contact (and the opponent) a split second longer, and in some cases can even put the opponent off balance if they lean even the slightest amount in one direction and start just a fraction of a second later than normal.
Bjorn Borg was able to hold his passing shots just a moment longer than the other players of his time.
Hewitt feeds off just such anticipatory movement, and in the matches leading up to the finals, he moved well, and retrieved famously. But somehow in the final, Hewitt was often late to the ball in baseline rallies. And not on Federer's winners, but rather late to certain shots within otherwise mundane baseline exchanges.
Study the images of a crosscourt and down the line forehand shot from similar court positions - and you may get a feel for this "holding the shot" thing. And certainly, the skills of an Edberg, a Becker, a McEnroe or a Sampras rarely included such an appraisal of disguise. Simply put, the players can not readily get a jump on Roger's shots. He can play down the line or crosscourt off the identical stance and seemingly identical swing - directing the ball either left or right by a subtle change in timing (I am guessing here). Further, I now wonder whether one of the anticipatory cues opponents generally use (unavailable when playing Federer) is to somehow observe the opponent's eyes at contact. For if most players take their eye up and off the ball before contact toward the target zone that may be one of the anticipatory cues.
On a related note, there is the story told by Steve Stefanki at the 1985 USTA tennis teachers conference about two samurai swordsman who agree to "fight." At sunrise, they bow to one another, unsheathe their swords, and assume their fighting stances. The sun rises, neither man moves, the sun sets, they bow ceremoniously, and go their separate ways. Neither was willing to move first, for such an initial move would offer the other an opening. Steve then recounted, and I believed him, that Bjorn Borg was able to hold his passing shots just a moment longer than the other players of his time, and when the opponent could not "out wait" Borg and committed their weight and balance every so slightly in one direction, Bjorn would redirect the pass to the opposite side. (And if you check in the pro strokes gallery, Borg's head position at and after contact appears similar to Federer's.) But there was one volleyer who did indeed learn to "out wait" Borg, and that was McEnroe. He genuinely committed later, he was rarely passed flat footed where he made no movement to the pass, and ultimately this ability to wait may have hastened Borg's departure from the game.
Finally, for those of you familiar with the gravity turn, it is interesting to note (and slow motion video highlights confirm) that McEnroe relied on that special starting footwork which may have afforded him the slightest edge in starting later but starting quickly.
Because we are all tennis fans and tennis players, what of the above can percolate into your and my game? First, I suggest you monitor how you anticipate your opponent. Do you have a set of cues or clues that provide hints about the direction of their shots? Then experiment with a groundstroke that you can play crosscourt or down the line without differing footwork. Can you time the ball later or sooner to change its direction? Finally, experiment on your ready position, noting the difference between "on" and "off" balance. Are you able to wait a moment longer? Can you feel when you are leaning too early and then unable to start? And through this, remember to be playful - Roger constantly reminds us that this is a game.
As always, we would love to hear your views on the subjects raised in this newsletter. Please click here to send your email directly to me.
Jim McLennan TennisOne Editor
(Click link to purchase Jim's McLennan's Secrets of World Class Footwork Video).
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