Australian Open: Can Federers new attitude work in 2014?

The question everyone including me is asking is whether Roger Federers new attitude reflected in the recent changes to his racquet, game and coaching set up can actually work?

I don’t have the answer yet because it’s an evolving question. I’ve just heard so much the past few months I am starting to understand the logic Roger is using and changing my mind from a no it can’t work to a maybe it can. Hopefully soon I will say it definitely can work.

Last year

Firstly we know what happened last year and why changes are needed. These are just a few of the items of note:

  • Run of 10 consecutive years reaching all slam quarterfinals ends
  • Reached Wimbledon without having won a title for the first time in years
  • Failed before third round in Wimbledon
  • Hadn’t qualified for tour finals by October
  • Fed as won only 1 slam in the last 48 months
I keep hearing that Fed should now retire and he is done. I don’t understand that logic because in the end he still qualified comfortably for the tour finals and made it out of his group. So he’s still good against top 10 players just not top 4. I feel that if he can’t qualify by right for the tour finals then he will consider quitting because the competitiveness of the top 10 these days means he can’t do a Sampras or Agassi and come from 40th and win a slam. 

What’s different now. 

To keep this post short I’ll jump straight into what Fed has changed. 
  • Larger racquet
  • No back problems
  • His mentality and his new coach Edberg
  • His wife is pregnant

New Racquet

The larger racquet gives him more power and spin but reduces control. I thought he had tried this briefly during the summer, had a bad time and then gone back to his trusty smaller racquet for the US Open and indoor hard court series only to return to it in the new season.
So I thought it would take quite a while for him to get his timing and really challenge so he wouldn’t be a real contender until Wimbledon. I still believe that but I was wrong about how long he has been playing with the racquet or racquets like it in competition. 
It turns out that Roger asked Wilson, his racquet sponsor, for a new larger racquet at the start of last year. Over the year he tried a few versions. Changing things over time until things felt right. Now he says it feels right. He can play his game and trust his shots. 
This puts a whole new angle on what the new racquet means for his game. If he has been moulding his club to his game over a year and has already played similar versions in competition then he is way ahead of the learning curve. Timing won’t be such an issue and that could be what we’re seeing at the moment. 
The interesting note is that he sounds deeply involved in the development of his racquet. Much like Formula one drivers often have an strong input in the development of the car they drive. So Rogers racquet is moulded to him. I assume the other top pros have similar deals. The fact that he developed it over a long time shows his professional attitude. I was wondering how these things worked. For the lesser pros I hear they have to play with what they are given, do Federer clearly has a deal which gives him a huge advantage. 

His Back

That’s not the whole story though. His back has been troubling him the last few years. The common problem of an attacker who relies on his serve. This is probably why his serve hasn’t been what it was and exposed his weaknesses. The Swiss has avoided serious injury so well that the added competition from his rivals probably led to the injury because they have made the game more physically demanding. They are now used to faster serves so Roger has had to put more into each shot to even keep up. 
That strains his body, strains his back and causes problems. A new racquet can take the pressure off the back and so can new tactics. Coming in and shortening points, particularly improving your footwork and backing up your serve better than before. I’m now looking to see if he’s doing this. He was already really good so it’s hard to notice but this is a way to protect your back so it’s natural Fed would adopt this approach. 
He says his last back twinge was in Gstaad which is held after Wimbledon in July

Mentality

I also understand more about Rogers tactics and why they make sense. For the past few years I’ve seen Fed attack the net and leave plenty of space to hit into. His opponents take advantage. So my memory of his losses is at match point when he chips and charges and gets passed. You can almost predict it because it’s the story of the match. For each big match this attacking approach made him feel nervous. As though if he didn’t win the first set then he had no answer. The way Andy Murray used to act as though there is no plan B.
So I thought it was attack gone mad. Fed doesn’t need a better attack he needs a better defence. That’s how I felt and what I was finding on court. You can’t go forward unless you can keep your opponent back and cover anything they throw back. 
Rogers view is that it’s best to start well and try to keep going because if you win the early games and sets you have no regrets. Leaving it til later to play your best means you MUST play well then. His way he can adjust or dig deeper if his earlier efforts fail. 
Explained that way it makes sense. Rafa does exactly this and so does Serena and both survive the many lulls that come later in a match because they won the first set. Rafa just does this better than anyone else. I have the same mentality because I would rather save my legs and body for later if I can. The further you get in a tournament or if you have many matches back to back this approach pays over the course.
Through Rafas eyes it just means competing from the start. Getting used to the pressure of the situation from the first point so that later he is warmed up as a competitor. If he isn’t ahead by then he already knows it instead of leaving it late to play his hand. Essentially he sees the extra sets as backups and prefers not to use them. That makes a lot of sense to me. It’s precisely how Rafa got where he is so you can’t fault the logic.
This is why Stefan Edberg is important. Roger wants to learn how to dominate early in rallies and sets and become a presence at the net. Now that Roger is hitting with Stefan he has described how Stefan draws your passing shot to him. He seems to control what his opponent does while at net. Roger wants to learn this style of play and dominate rallies more. I want to watch him do it so I can learn how to do it at my level.
The evolving approach to his game implies that Roger doesn’t obsess about results. He knows the process of winning and hasn’t diverted from it. He just stuck too long with old tools until it was clear they weren’t effective. The lead time to bring in the new racquet stalled his development but like other changes like his new coach they were planned changes as part of an evolving career. That is how it now seems. Seeing Roger as a process oriented player who isn’t panicking about results gives me more faith in his fortunes for 2014 and the rest of his career.

@ESPNTennis
Great stat on Fed’s average backhand hit point. What a difference a year makes! #ESPNAO #AusOpen 

Happiness

Roger is also really happy right now because he and his wife are expecting another baby. He feels had good results last time Mirka was pregnant so he is hoping for the same. One thing I feel it provides is perspective. While it also adds extra responsibility this new focus can help him deal with the pressures of tennis by giving him something else to think about. A change is as good as a rest and as a dad myself I know that in the presence of your own little one it really isn’t possible to think of much else but their needs most of the time. A big challenge but a brilliant way to reset your mind and remember what’s important. 

The whole

Putting this all together I can see how the new racquet can give Federers attack and defence more pop. Letting the tools do the work should save his back. If he’s fully fit and able to play the game that he plays so well then at the Master Finals he showed he can live with the best. His fitness over 5 sets isn’t really in question if his tools are taking the load and making life easier. 
I thought he was just panicking by rushing to get the first set but if it is really is part of this longer term strategy then I can see it working. Process is everything for me not result, though we know he can still get the results against most on tour. It’s only the top guys that he has started struggling against. 
Coming in is the best tactic against defensive experts like the Rafa and Novak if you can do it well because, you expose more court for you to hit into and force your opponent to go for more. I find that myself in matches. Dominating the mid court is the key stat I look for because I find it determines the match. Though I find it just like playing at the back. You only get good at it if you do it regularly. 
I lack good volleys and don’t fully understand the net game. With an Olympic gold in doubles Feds net game is obviously good. His volleys are clearly good and his footwork has always been excellent. Of course it needs work like any player but if the racquet can do some of that work by keeping the ball deep and rushing his opponents then he has that edge he has needed. 
I have noticed how players that rush me do well because I can’t get the racquet to the ball precisely when I want it there. This includes footwork, grips and all sorts but boils down to how you address the ball with the racquet. So I’ve worked on short explosive and accurate shot making to counter attack this. Basically if some one is rushing you then they are hitting hard. That means there is already pace on the ball so you don’t have to add much pace yourself to send a fast ball back. That allows for a shorter take back which makes your shot faster. So you can be ready sooner because you aren’t trying to make the power yourself you’re just redirecting what is given to you. 
When I am rushed I’ve learnt to block and redirect. That works very well, giving me plenty of time and saving my energy while at the same time frustrating my opponent because the better he plays the better the ball that comes back. That’s how I understand Federer plays, he has his style but he also feeds off his opponent. So I am starting to see how these changes are improving Feds existing infrastructure and taking him back to a world class contender.
As I write this Roger is leading Murray by two sets to one in the 2014 Australian open quarterfinal and, by all accounts is dominating Murray. But Andy is a weakened foe coming back from surgery so I take any result with a pinch of salt. The fact though is that Roger stands on the brink of another grandslam final. Results matter and reaching semis is only one step from the final. 
So I’ve now got something to interest me while following Rogers season that I didn’t have before. I understand more about his process and I can see its value. The margins are so small at the top level it’s fascinating to see the effects of these small changes and also to understand that Rogers game is evolving more than I thought it was. That in itself makes Roger more interesting. 
I thought he had stagnated. Turns out the outside may appear the same but the inside is still trying new things.

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