Roger Federer has won 16 slams, the most by any tennis player and is regarded as the greatest player to have played to game so far. His skills are undeniable, and he has been on top form recently, even defeating Nadal and winning the Indian Wells Masters. But like any past great champion, age is catching up with him. He’ll turn 31 this fall and hasn’t won a slam since the 2010 Australian Open. Though he can’t dominate the rest of the field outright like he did in his prime, he needs to pick and choose examples from past legends who blazed to trail to stay on top of the pile over the age of 30. Here’s a list of the top 4 things he could do to get back to #1 and keep the edge over the rest of the Top 4:
#4: Attack Their Weakness: This may seem like a no-brainer, but Federer’s game and technique was simply so good for his opponents that he hardly had a need for a strategy / gameplan while dominating his peers when he was winning 2-3 majors a year. Andre Agassi, In his guest commentary during the 2007 US Open, provided some excellent insight regarding this aspect of Federer’s game. Agassi mentioned how he and other players would target their strength against Feliciano Lopez, for example, by attacking his backhand. But Federer simply was going for his shots to anywhere on the court against Lopez in the previous round.
While this approach worked for Federer against other players, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray developed excellent defensive games that neutralized his attacking strengths, especially on slower courts. Indian Wells semifinals showed Federer finally relentlessly attacking Nadal’s backhand and using a more planned approach to beat him rather than simply rely on his genius. Though it seems like Federer thought it was beneath him to have such disciplined game plan, he needs to stick to it and attack the weakness of his opponents.
#3: Switch to a Larger Racquet: Federer plays the classic game with a heavy racquet with 90 square inch head size. All other players in the top 10 play with racquets that are 95 – 100 sq inches. His racquet is very unforgiving against spins of Nadal and Djokovic who relently loop it to his backhand and wait for an error or a mis-timed ball to put away. It will be hard for him to sustain the level he reached with his backhand in Indian Wells against Nadal or Djokovic in a 5-setter, as they have more time to keep working on that game plan. A larger head size of at least a 95 can help him get back to taking the ball on the rise against Rafa, Nole and Andy, and still have have some forgiveness on his backhand so he won’t make errors with balls taken on the rise. He could customize any larger frame with similar weight and balance to play like his current racquet through altering strings / tension, etc. and get back to being lethal with his backhand, especially at hard courts and Wimbledon, and he can add some power to his serves and groundies from the larger frame to put even less stress on his body as he ages. Pete Sampras has expressed in many interviews how his stubbornness to use the same equipment throughout his career with minimal changes cost him a few majors when the game changed when youngsters like Safin, Hewitt, and even Guga at Lisbon 2000 challenged and beat him with newer string technology to neutralize his serve.
#2: Use His Emotions: Federer, being committed to playing tennis in the classic mold, hardly shows emotions on the court. Though this frustrations have been apparent at times, he mostly keeps it to himself. Jimmy Connors, in his magical run to the US Open Semis in 91, used the crowd masterfully to lift himself to victories, even on occassions when defeat seemed imminent. Now that Federer may be considered the underdog in semis and finals of majors, he needs to use his legions of fans and those who’ll cheer for underdogs in general to pull himself to a win. He could have used that in US Open 2011 against Djokovic to mentally take Djokovic out of the game when he still had match points, for example.
#1: Take Young Players Under His Wings: This is straight out of Ivan Lendl’s book. Lendl, at an older age, mentored Pete Sampras while Pete was still young. Sampras used that experience to become one of the greatest of all time. Though the impact of his mentorship on Pete is well known, one can easily see how it helped Lendl. Pete’s game was very similar at the time to those of Edberg, Becker, etc. who would rush the net and bother Lendl. By taking Pete under his wing, Lendl had a practice partner who would give him the best preparation against his biggest obstacles to winning wimbledon.
Federer can have similar preparation by mentoring a young player like Thomaz Belucci. Belucci has a very similar style to that of Nadal and is extremely talented with a better serve than Nadal himself. When Federer had to overcome a first set deficit to beat Belucci in IW, it gave him exactly the kind of preparation he needed to beat Nadal. Just having him as a occassional practice partner may not help either of them, but a uber-talented player like Belucci can use Federer’s mentorship to have a great top 10 career.
Federer fans would like to see him play well through his mid-30’s and maybe longer, but he simply can’t blaze through the field like he used to unless he changes things with age. The above may not be a complete list of what he needs to do, but it will be a great start.