Following his 97th ATP World Tour title in Rotterdam, Roger Federer returned to the top of tennis’ rankings after a gap of nearly 5 years. This historic achievement was the culmination of years of hard work and a willingness on Federer’s behalf to adapt and revamp his game. Having experienced unprecedented success from 2003 – 2009, Federer’s dominance declined steadily and considerably. In the next 7 years, Federer won only 2 Grand Slam titles compared to his 15 in the previous 6. Although Federer briefly reclaimed his number one ranking in 2012, his status as the game’s number one ranked player appeared to be a thing of the past. A particularly substandard and injury-riddled 2013 led many tennis commentators and experts to declare Federer a spent force at the age of 31. But, amidst these doubts and writing of obituaries, Federer maintained an inner belief that he would one day return to the pinnacle of his sport.
Federer’s revival started with him making a daring decision to change his racquet from a 90 to a 97 square inch frame at the end of 2013. Federer’s bravery in doing this cannot be underestimated. With his old frame, he had won 78 Tour Titles including 17 Majors, whilst also holding the number one ranking for a record period. However, Federer recognised that, for him to continue to challenge and compete with the top players in the world, a larger racquet was needed. His ranking had plummeted to 7th in the world, whilst his ageing body was less able to cope with lengthy baseline exchanges. Whilst it would take time to fully adjust, Federer knew this racquet would give him increased serving power, as well as improving his ability to hit shoulder-height backhands.
In this defining period before the 2014 season, Federer mentally committed to playing a new brand of offensive tennis. Federer planned to counteract the superior defensive skills of Murray, Djokovic and Nadal by adding a fresh array of attacking weapons, most notably superior net play. Hoping to master this new skill, Federer very intelligently called upon his boyhood hero Stefan Edberg. Edberg’s supreme volleying skills had helped him win 6 Grand Slams and, under his tutelage, Federer vastly improved his feel, touch and spatial awareness in the upper half of the court. In match situations, he could now increasingly rush his opponents into mistakes and bombard them with all-out aggressive play. This change in approach and style of play allowed Federer to gradually bridge the existing gap between him and his rivals.
In the 2014 and 2015 seasons, evidence of Federer’s progress was visibly apparent, winning 11 tournaments and reaching 3 Grand Slam Finals. Federer climbed to number two in the rankings and was aware that his new game style was enabling him to compete with the top players again. In the aftermath of a devastating loss in 2015 US Open Final against Djokovic, Federer was remarkably upbeat and defiant. As a 34 year old, 5 time winner of the event Federer, to the astonishment of many viewers, declared: ‘I’m very pleased with where my game is at. I feel like it is moving in the right direction. I will be back.’
Heading into the 2016 season, the final piece of the Federer revitalisation project was installed. Ivan Ljubicic, himself a former world number three, was appointed by Federer as his new coach. Having played against the Swiss man on numerous occasions and discussed with fellow players tactics designed to expose his weaknesses, Ljubicic offered a contemporary insight into what Federer’s competitors targeted in his game. The Croat was adamant that Federer had to improve his backhand and become more willing to take the ball earlier and ‘on the rise.’ Many opponents, most prominently Nadal, persistently played to Federer’s single-handed backhanded with high spinning, loopy shots. Federer would often struggle to combat these heavy topspin ground-strokes, allowing his opponents to dictate rallies and gain an upper-hand. Ljubicic convinced a previously stubborn Federer of the need to strike his backhand closer to the baseline and drive through the ball more readily. Both Federer and Ljubicic worked tirelessly on perfecting this new technique, but the fruits of their work would not show for some time. Federer’s 2016 season was cut short by a knee injury, requiring surgery, forcing the then 7 time Wimbledon champion into the longest lay-off of his career. However, in 2017 a refreshed and replenished Federer began to showcase the improvement in his backhand. At 35 years of age, he was ready to re-conquer the world.
Entering the Australian Open as a firm underdog, Federer stunningly progressed to the final, serving powerfully and piercing his backhand like never before. In the final, his remodelled game faced the ultimate test in Nadal. For over a decade, Nadal had proved Federer’s nemesis, dominating their encounters and defeating the Swiss man in 6 Major finals. As this match meandered into a fifth set, Nadal predictably probed Federer’s ‘weaker’ wing with venom and ferocity. Federer courageously stood firm, took the ball early and drove through his revamped backhand with authority. In that set alone, Federer hit 8 backhand winners as part of a magnificent 18 in the match. A long-standing weakness had been transformed into a strength and had excelled under the most arduous of tests. The blueprint for Federer’s path back to number one had been laid down.
Following his Australian Open triumph, Federer added 6 further titles in 2017, including an 8th Wimbledon. Last month, he defended his Australian Open title to make it 3 majors in 12 months, where he had previously gone over 4 years without winning one. Arguably more impressively, he has maintained a sturdy stranglehold over Nadal, beating the Spaniard in their last 5 meetings. Crucially, Federer’s commitment to playing a very light schedule, whereby he skips mediocre tournaments and prioritises staying fresh for the biggest events, is enabling him to stay fit and motivated at a time when many of his rivals are over-exerting themselves.
At 36 years of age, there is ample evidence to suggest that Federer is playing better than ever. Last year, the 20 times Grand Slam champion won a higher percentage of points behind his serve than at any prior stage of his career. Moreover, he has admitted that the ‘scar tissue’ which hindered him against Nadal for so long has well and truly subsided. Elsewhere, stats indicate Federer now hits his backhand three miles per hour faster than in 2015, supporting his claims he is playing ‘more free and relaxed tennis.’
Through deeply detailed self-analysis and phenomenally prudent coaching appointments, Federer has overcome the obstacles and challenges thrown at him by the tennis tour. His devotion to constantly seeking improvement and proactively evolving his game to fend off competitors has cemented his place as the greatest tennis player of all time.
Jack Stokes – Sports Writer