Good and Bad Tactics at Indian Wells
“In tennis, there’s no coaching, no passing the ball. It’s problem solving at its purest,” Andre Agassi once said. No player solves problems better than Roger Federer in men’s tournament tennis, where fortunately coaching is still prohibited.
Federer was confronted with a huge problem against 6’10”, 245-pound John Isner in the BNP Paribas Open final: how to break his explosive serve. Isner fired 21 aces to upset world No. 1 Novak Djokovic 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 in the semifinals, and a month earlier the 26-year-old American overpowered Federer in a Davis Cup shocker on Swiss clay.
After Federer pulled out a 9-7 tiebreaker to win the first set at Indian Wells, Isner was serving at 3-3, 15-15, and yet another tiebreaker looked likely, a prospect Isner’s opponents never relish.
Federer’s supreme athleticism and sublime shotmaking give him the ability to execute almost any tactic. However, it’s his ingenious tennis mind that conceives of the tactics, and in some cases, which of the two or more available tactics, is the best option.
Federer is superior to Isner in every department except for the serve. Since neither backcourt exchanges nor drop shots were working well enough to produce a service break, he decided on Plan C. This plan would exploit Isner’s weakness in handling low slice shots, his mediocre backhand approach shot, his lack of agility at net, and, paradoxically, his long arms. And one more thing Federer may not have expected: Isner’s flawed counter-tactics.
After rallying a bit, Federer sliced a crosscourt backhand that landed near the sideline and just past the service line. Isner took the bait and sliced a backhand crosscourt—instead of the higher percentage down-the-line and deep approach.
Seeing how easily the tactic worked, Federer tried it again on the next point. This time Isner compounded his tactical error. Not only did he approach crosscourt again, but he decided to run around his backhand and stroke a forehand. The maneuver forced Isner to hit the ball from very close to the backhand sideline, which made his path to the net longer and more diagonal. As a result, the big opening this time was down the line, and that’s exactly where the savvy Swiss directed his backhand passing shot.
With the score 15-40 and facing double break point, Isner hit a body serve that the jammed Federer managed to return short to Isner’s backhand. This time Isner decided on a two-handed backhand approach, again crosscourt, that lacked power, depth and placement. Without a big opening for his passing shot, Federer moved up quickly and ripped a short-range backhand at Isner’s right hip. A long reach is normally a significant advantage at net, but the clumsy Isner could not clear his huge body out of the way and erred badly on his volley. That service break was all the opportunistic, problem-solving Federer needed. Serving efficiently throughout—he won 94% of his first serve points and 72% of second serve points—he prevailed 7-6, 6-3.
Click photo: Federer exploited Isner's weakness in handling low slice shots, his mediocre backhand approach shot, his lack of agility at net, and, paradoxically, his long arms. And one more thing Federer may not have expected: Isner's flawed counter-tactics.
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Federer likes to chop giants down to size, and his quarterfinal opponent, 6’6” Juan Martin del Potro, provided him with another problem-solving opportunity. Although the mild-mannered Argentine ambushed Federer in the 2009 US Open final, he has yet to regain that splendid form after wrist surgery and a lengthy absence from the tour. Federer had defeated him the last four times without dropping a set.
What should trouble Del Potro about his disappointing 6-3, 6-2 trouncing by Federer at Indian Wells is his woeful tactic of returning Federer’s first serve from 5 to 10 feet behind the baseline and generally rallying from too far behind the baseline, in sharp contrast to Federer and Djokovic who hug the baseline. Like Isner and former women’s No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, both slow movers, Del Potro must play “first-strike tennis” because his defensive ability is quite limited.
Click photo: Returning serve from an overly deep position put Del Potro in deep trouble to start many points against Federer.
Why is Del Potro’s serve return position so self-defeating? First, it’s impossible to attack effectively and play first-strike tennis from such a deep position. Second, serve returns from so far back that lack power or net clearance will land short and invite opponents to attack. In fact, it’s often difficult to judge the correct trajectory for returns that must travel so far to clear the net. Third, the serve returner is vulnerable to wide serves, and Federer repeatedly burned Del Potro with slice serves in the deuce court, racking up 13 aces in 9 service games. Fourth, the serve returner finds himself in a bad starting position to reach angle volleys and drop volleys.
On Del Potro’s bad positioning, double Grand Slammer Rod Laver pointed out, “It creates openings and angles for Roger, especially for his forehand, so he can win the point outright.”
Federer’s devilish drop shot became yet another weapon in his arsenal. How could he resist the temptation? Besides playing from a position of weakness, Del Potro lacks speed to reach drop shots as well as agility at the net. Outsmarted, Delpo also found himself either on his back foot or on the dead run from Fed’s vast array of offensive shots.
Darren Cahill, the perceptive ESPN analyst, diplomatically noted, “There’s a lot for Del Potro to learn by watching the tapes of this match and the  US Open match against Federer.”
Del Potro would quickly learn that at Indian Wells he positioned himself poorly, and even more dismaying, that he didn’t have any tactics, except for pounding first serves and forehands aimlessly. He rarely tried to move Federer around the court, even after his almost non-stop and predictable shots to Federer’s backhand proved futile.
Click photo: Federer used drop shots and short volleys to bring the much-slower Del Potro into the forecourt and then took advantage of him there.
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The 28th match in the great Federer-Nadal rivalry (Nadal leads 18-10) proved disappointing, partly because the 25-year-old, Spanish superstar played passively from the backcourt. Both his backhand and serve have regressed since 2010 when he captured three major titles.
Federer’s strategy was to play high-risk, high-reward tennis on the relatively slow hard courts to exploit that passivity. His tactics to implement this attacking strategy were impeccable. He ran around Nadal’s second serve, particularly in the deuce court, to pound forehands and put Nadal immediately on the defensive. (Nadal won only 53% of his total service points and had no aces.) Federer occasionally snuck in to net—where he won 12 of 13 points—even when Nadal didn’t hit short balls, which surprised Nadal, and then hit sharp, deep volleys, angle volleys or drop volleys. His backhand has rarely been sharper, and powerful crosscourt backhands punished Nadal’s normally superior forehand and pushed Nadal even deeper and farther out of position.
In theory, the blustery wind should have favored Nadal, but Federer struck the ball on the rise so early and cleanly that Nadal’s vicious forehand topspin seldom became a factor. Instead, in almost every rally, Federer’s powerful and accurate forehand from on or inside the baseline kept Nadal scampering on the defensive and often deep behind the baseline. And, as always, Federer served relentlessly to Nadal’s vulnerable backhand. His slice serve paid especially big dividends in the deuce court where the stretched-out Nadal’s slice backhand either erred or produced weak returns.
Not surprisingly, the supremely confident Swiss reeled off 15 of the last 20 points to grab the first set 6-3. Near the end of the 6-4 second set, Nadal tried to play more offensively, but it was clearly too little and too late.
“He played very aggressive. He played fantastic,” said a gracious Nadal afterwards. Smart, well-executed tactics were the key to this Federer victory.
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Azarenka is off to the best start in women's tennis since Swiss great Martina Hingis reeled off 37 straight wins to kick off the 1997 season.
Victoria Azarenka has rampaged through the start of 2012, winning her first 23 matches, prompting speculation that she might match or surpass Martina Hingis’s dazzling 37 straight wins to kick 1997 off or even Djokovic’s incredible 41-match victory streak to start 2011.
Much of her success is due to two smart tactics, reminiscent of 1990s superstar Monica Seles. She positions herself audaciously on the baseline during rallies and returns serves as aggressively as she can while rarely being reckless. Her serve returns which, like Djokovic’s, put constant and enormous pressure on her foes.
“Azarenka makes you work so hard to win your points,” pointed out ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, the former French and Australian Open finalist, during the lopsided final. “Azarenka does a great job of holding her ground. She stays very close to that baseline, regardless of how hard Sharapova hits the ball. She is the best example of someone who plays with controlled aggression. She has become the complete player.”
Like Federer, the 22-year-old Belarusian boasts the athleticism and technical skills to be a complete player, but combining those attributes to create the right tactics takes time and usually lessons learned from bitter defeats. “Last year was a learning experience for me,” Azarenka related after outclassing Sharapova. “Every loss I analyzed and step by step just built on everything, just daily hard work. I had a lot of tough losses last year, and so now I’m really trying to turn it around in my own favor.”
Click photo: Victoria Azarenka, reminiscent of 1990s superstar Monica Seles, is ready to pound serve returns and then pounce on weak shots.
The education of a tactical tennis player requires topnotch coaching—which French coach Sam Sumyk has provided—as well as trial and error because thoughtful, versatile opponents adjust to some tactics or even thwart them. Therefore, applying tactics also requires poise and clear thinking, which isn’t always easy in the heat of battle. The shrewdest competitors know when to change tactics either completely or subtly during matches, just as Federer did against Isner.
Since Azarenka has Sharapova’s number—she’s routinely beaten her in their last four finals, never giving up more than five games—she won’t change her winning tactical game. The far less versatile Russian takes the brute power approach, much like Del Potro, with two notable exceptions. She has incorporated a sharply angled crosscourt topspin forehand, and perhaps as a concession to her shoulder following a surgery, she changes speeds on her first serve more than ever. Azarenka also knows that when Sharapova is on the dead run, she seldom plays defense or a high-percentage shot; instead she goes for a big shot. In sharp contrast, the new and much-improved Azarenka almost always plays the right shot at the right time.
Whether Azarenka, who was notorious for blowing up and blowing leads earlier in her career, is calmer and more collected than ever because her tactics are better than ever, or vice versa, is debatable. Likely, the cause-and-effect relationship works both ways. In any event, as ESPN analyst and former doubles great Pam Shriver rightly asserted: “Azarenka is not just a physical giant on the court, but a mental giant, too.”
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