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Ultimate student: How will Federer leave his mark on future players?
The 20-time Grand Slam champion has always wielded his racquet with a child-like joy. Think of that as the Swiss’ grand legacy: an eternally open mind to the entire tennis lexicon.
October 31, 2020
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The concept of elegance has defined Roger Federer as far back as his teens. In 1998, as a promising junior, the stylish Swiss caught the eyes of a small group of tennis cognoscenti. Three years later, the 19-year-old Federer captured the world’s attention when he toppled Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. Excitement around Federer grew not just for what he might achieve, but how he would do it. As Federer has proven now for 20 years, there has never been a tennis player who inspires more swooning.
Given the off-the-charts appreciation for what Federer does with his racquet, what kind of legacy will he bequeath to people who play tennis? This is a complicated question. Some champions leave massive fingerprints. Consider the tremendous impact of Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert. Along with Jimmy Connors, Borg and Evert legitimized the two-handed backhand, a shot that prior to this trio’s ascent was largely considered taboo.
Drilling deeper, Borg ushered in a new approach to groundstrokes—the use of significant amounts of topspin. Rafael Nadal is the greatest contemporary practitioner of what Borg started. Then there’s Evert. Arising in an era dominated by net-rushers, she turned the tables and inspired millions of players—girls and boys alike—to develop a playing style based on relentless, forceful baseline play. You see the mark of Evert on everyone from Novak Djokovic to Simona Halep.
On the other hand, Martina Navratilova and Pete Sampras, also grand champions akin to Borg and Evert, are less likely to surface as stylistic role models for a great many juniors, aspiring pros, or recreational players. To be sure, the challenges of serve-and-volley tennis and the limitations of the one-handed backhand in the contemporary game are clear and I won’t belabor them here. And yet, Navratilova and Sampras were also quite versatile, fully capable of winning many matches from all corners of the court.
So how will the Federer playing style shape current and future players?
“Roger’s technical legacy is merging a classic grip with the elements of the so-called modern forehand,” says veteran instructor John Yandell, a pioneer in the use of video technology and founder of the digital magazine, TennisPlayer.net. “He’s also sustained the lifespan and viability of the one-handed backhand.”
Peter Freeman, founder of the online instructional site, Crunch Time Coaching, says that, “Federer is cool. Kids will copy that. Kids growing up can do everything.” Freeman believes young players will emulate Federer—from his sweeping, powerful forehand to drop shots, net-rushing and so many more of the techniques and tactics the Swiss has displayed so richly.
“Already it’s clear how he’s influencing people,” says Lynne Rolley, a former USTA coach who currently teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. “You’re not seeing as many extreme Western grips. People are taking shorter swings.”
Strategy guru Craig O’Shannessy savors Federer’s ability to direct his serve to various spots of the court and use such shots as the short slice backhand to slow down the tempo of a rally and then speed it up with a burst of electric movement and a lightning bolt of a forehand. Indeed, Federer’s ability to manage time and space in so many different ways is a major reason he is so enjoyable to watch.
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So the Federer legacy appears potentially rich. Akin to the grand patriarch of a real estate empire, the Roger portfolio boasts dazzling properties in cities, on the water, in the mountains, of all shapes and sizes.
Unquestionably, it’s viable for players to mimic certain Federer techniques. Says Freeman, “Look how long Roger keeps his head down.” Freeman also praises the rotational aspects of the Federer forehand and sees many players deploying that swing. And with a bit of practice, adults who’ve long sliced their backhands could make them even more proficient. Children could certainly add such a shot too.
The tactical realm, though, requires a different approach than merely imitating certain aspects of stroke production. One reason Evert and Borg have cast a long shadow is that their styles of play are relatively easy to replicate from an early age. Apply two hands to the backhand, add a forehand grip, and, presto, there are the makings of the so-called “steady” player, complete with the batteries included.
In contrast, Navratilova and Sampras required more time to assemble their aggressive games. Federer too endured a learning curve as he put all his parts and pieces together, early in his career often losing to such formidable attrition-based peers as Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian. Eventually, though, Federer’s long-term investment in a wide range of tactics took him past those rivals.
While some coaches believe juniors will be gung-ho to incorporate a Federer-like strategic mindset into their playing styles, others think Federer’s tactical diversity might be more relevant for adults.
“What Roger does is more applicable to the vast majority of players who aren’t serious juniors, ranking-driven competitors,” says Yandell. “The volley still works, the slice backhand is viable.”
Will students—juniors or adults—have the patience to not just hone, but also deploy a wide arsenal? Parks and clubs are filled with players trying to keep their head down when hitting the ball—what one instructor calls a “fetish with Federer.” But it takes another kind of intellect to play a match and see the value in hitting the occasional drop shot approach, coming in on the opponent’s serve, varying serve locations based on the score. And are there instructors who have the skills to see and teach the game this way too?
Federer might well be tennis’ ultimate student. At various stages of his career, Federer has made major alterations. The teenager who beat Sampras was a frequent serve-and-volleyer. But as the years went on, Federer commanded far more points from the baseline. Most recently, beginning in 2017, he began to drive his backhand more often, coupled with a shift in court positioning that was also aided by a transition to a racquet with a bigger hitting area.
“To stay among the best, you have to do a little bit here and little bit there,” says Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri.
Fueling this is Federer’s sheer love of tennis. Similar to his fellow Swiss star, Martina Hingis, Federer has always wielded his racquet with a child-like joy. Think of that as Federer’s grand legacy: an eternally open mind to the entire tennis lexicon.