After 17 Grand Slam titles, 77 singles titles, and 302 weeks at No. 1, King Roger has thrown Excalibur back into the lake. After an historic partnership, Roger Federer has decided to part ways with his iconic Pro Staff. The 90 square-inch Wilson was as part of his persona as his signature headband. Given the rise in popularity of mid-plus frames—Federer himself has decided to trade up for a bigger racquet face—it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a world No. 1 using such a small head size again. It’s truly the end of an era.
The motive behind the switch is undoubtedly career extension. Pete Sampras, Federer’s idol, used the original Pro Staff—with its even smaller 85 square-inches—for his entire career. Upon retirement he started playing with an updated 95 square-inch version and remarked that it felt like cheating. Sampras wondered what switching to bigger head size would have done to prolong his run of excellence. Federer clearly doesn’t want to ever wonder what if.
The reaction across Twitter and the web has been feverish. The prevailing assumption is that Federer has switched to the Blade 98. When reached for confirmation, Wilson would only comment that Federer will be using a blacked-out frame to start his Hamburg run. In his press conference Federer admitted to the size increase but wouldn’t divulge the model. It’s conceivable, although unlikely, that Wilson would roll out an entirely new frame mid-season. So if it is indeed the Blade 98, this marks a step in the direction many of Fed’s fans have been clamoring for: A more powerful and forgiving frame.
I haven’t had much experience with the Blade 98, but I’m quite familiar with its lineage having played for many years with the [K] Blade Tour. That racquet, with its 93 square-inch frame, 12-ounce weight, and leather grip performs more like Federer’s signature Pro Staff than the racquet he’s switching to. However, I toyed around with the 98 square-inch version when I switched racquets last summer. It’s lighter, livelier, and wider than Federer’s old frame with a more generous sweetspot. From the pictures of Federer in practice it appears he’s using the Blade with a 16-by-19 string pattern, the same as his Pro Staff. With the larger head, however, there will be more space between the strings, which can result in greater elasticity (better pop) and spin production.
What does this mean for Federer’s game? The shanks and mishits that sometimes plague a misfiring Federer—who needs to be so pinpoint with the Pro Staff—could be less apparent. Free points on the serve and mid-court forehands should also be easier to come by. Federer will have a customized version of the Blade 98, but the stock version is significantly lighter on the scale than the Pro Staff. The swingweight, however, is slightly higher, meaning more of its weight is toward the head. This is helpful in delivering and handling power, something Federer seemingly wants to improve upon. In his press conference he spoke of how most of his peers use equipment with this head size and playing characteristics and perhaps it’s time he stop bucking the trend. He will have added firepower to hang longer in rallies with the big hitters and potentially be more of the dictator.
There’s a flip side to that coin, though: There’s the possibility this new racquet detracts from some of the things that make him Roger Federer. The Pro Staff he’s abandoning is designed to reward his precise shot-making. He can derive plenty of power from it, but its attributes revolve around manipulating the ball; not overwhelming it. It’s a wand of sorts, and we’ve seen the magic he can conjure with it. Federer may not all of a sudden be comfortable transitioning his game from chess to checkers.
Racquet changes are always a risk. Whether this will spur another run of greatness from Federer remains to be seen. But give him credit: By looking for more help from his equipment, it’s an admission that his game is not quite measuring up to his competition. For a proud guy with an enviable trophy room, that’s not an easy thing to do.