Post-Final Update: In the US Open Final Federer won 39% of return points (61/155) and broke serve 4 times. In the 2015 Wimbledon final he only won 31% of return points (45/145), breaking serve only once.
In the lead up to the 1993 Wimbledon Championships, Pete Sampras believed the final piece of his grass court game had fallen into place; “despite the hype, grass-court tennis isn’t about the serve; it’s all about the return.”By shortening his backswing on return and holding the racquet in front of his body, Sampras felt he had made the adjustment necessary to capture his maiden title at SW19. A three set final defeat of Jim Courier would prove him right and truly signal the start of his career as a dominant champion. The serve, the fleet-footed movement and, critically, the return of serve would become the hallmarks of his storied grass court career.
Now on the morning of the 2015 US Open final, the tennis world has been set alight by the very same shot. Last month in the Cincinnati Masters Final, Sampras’ successor, Roger Federer, reinvented the return, for the casual fan, in one single stroke. With the match finely poised at 3-1 in the first set tie-break the world No.1 Novak Djokovic hit a second serve. As he was mid toss Federer glided towards the service line and, barely after the ball had bounced, hit a perfect forehand half-volley. Impossible to return the Serbian netted the backhand and had to refrain from smashing his racquet for no one had ever taken the ball this earlier on return. Maybe John McEnroe? Never this early, not in such a big match, not at such a critical moment, not against the world’s best player. Djokovic didn’t win another point in the tie-break.
The return is a complex shot; a casual fan will have difficulty differentiating between types of return. The majority will look no further than whether the ball lands in, out, hits the net or goes for winner. Fans are normally excited by booming winners, shots between the legs or jumping overheads but Federer has managed to give the return a life of its own. He has given another reason for fans to follow him all over the world. He has given personality to a shot that can go unnoticed. The shot now has a name of its own; the SABR, the sneak attack by Roger. But most importantly this tactic points to Federer’s recent overall aggressive return strategy and his potential success against Novak Djokovic in today’s US Open final.
Before Pete Sampras addressed the issue of his return on a grass court, he felt more comfortable on artificial surfaces; “my game was developed on hard courts, where you have a pretty good look at serves, especially first serves.” The slower playing conditions provide the receiver with more time and more options on the return. On grass the serve shoots through the court and comes through at a lower trajectory. One has to concentrate more on simply chipping the ball back. On hard courts the ball enters the player’s hitting zone more often and there is a bigger focus on how aggressive one can be, where to put the ball, how much height to play the shot with and how far to stand into the court. The last couple of weeks we have seen the benefit hard courts have had on Roger Federer’s return game.
During the 2015 Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic, Federer managed a sole break of serve and the year earlier failed to do so in four of the five sets. The Swiss spoke of his difficulties with the Djokovic serve and was dismayed why he “wasn’t breaking Novak’s serve or actually creating opportunities.” He elaborated “you know, I think it’s one thing not to break. That can happen if the other guy plays well in the big moments and all that stuff. It’s really only until the fourth set when I was down a break that I started to understand more how to return him, which was a surprise for me because I’ve played him that many times.” They have played each other forty one times but only three times on grass. Djokovic’s improved serve is causing Federer more problems but none more so than at Wimbledon.
Federer constantly looks to force his opponents back in search of short responses and the opportunity to hit aggressive forehands in order to end points quickly. Grass courts, widely regarded as Federer’s best surface, have denied him the opportunity to consistently do so against the Novak Djokovic. Federer is forced to block returns and consequently finds himself in more baseline rallies with fewer opportunities to move forward, having to hit more backhands, having to defend more and generally playing the Serb at his own game. These are not the patterns of play that are going to see him defeat the world No.1.
During the current North American hard court swing Federer is returning more aggressively than ever. Besides the obvious SABR, a relatively low percentage play, we are seeing him consistently step into the court on return. In Cincinnati his average return position was 4.5ft into the court compared to 1.5ft at the same event last year. He still blocks the ball back but now we are seeing him hit cross court topspin backhands and down the line forehands when returning from the deuce side as well as inside out forehands and down the line backhands from the AD side. The more he can force Djokovic away from the centre of the court, the more time he can spend playing the way he wants.
Federer himself has acknowledged this increasingly aggressive tactic. After comprehensively beating Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 in the Cincinnati final, creating eight break points opportunities, he stated “I was very aggressive on second serves, and I am happy to see that actually it’s also a way forward for me, because for quite a long time my career I was very content to chip it and be aggressive with the forehand” and earlier in the tournament mentioning he was “doing different things now on the backhand” return.
Fast hard courts not only bring a better return but also a stronger defence. This will serve him well when drawn into long rallies. On hard as Federer says “you can stop on a dime and move in the other direction, which on other surfaces is not so easy to do.” It is easier to return to the centre of the court after being forced to defend out wide. Friday’s semi-final against countryman Stan Wawrinka, the most powerful player on tour, saw Federer chasing down almost every ball to stay in points, something that would not be possible on grass.
Federer’s new tactics and improved defence have served him well in Cincinnati and New York and he is now primed to do what he couldn’t in the Wimbledon final; defeat Novak Djokovic in a grand slam final this late on in his career. While the SABR may have won over the fans, Federer’s return may bring down Djokovic.