In 2006, the British sports columnist Simon Barnes wrote these words about the ATP’s No. 1 player at the time: “When Federer becomes the boy with the racquet of fire, creating the illusion of art, he also creates an additional illusion: that his opponent is not, in fact, opposing him. That his opponent is in fact cooperating with him. [A match] becomes a pas de deux choreographed by Federer, dancing with a man who is partner, stooge, straight man, and butt.”
I thought of those words while watching Federer—no longer a boy, but still wielding that racquet of fire—win the title in Rotterdam this week and reclaim the No. 1 ranking for the first time in five years. Before 2017, it had been some time since Federer seemed to be choreographing his matches and conspiring with his opponents to make himself look good. Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have always come to compete against him, rather than cooperate with him.
But with Djokovic and Murray sidelined, and his Nadal problem at least temporarily solved, Federer is again having his way with the rest of the men’s field. Since losing in the quarterfinals at last year’s US Open, he has won 25 of 26 matches, and is 12-0 so far in 2018. If anything, he’s having an easier time of it at 36 than he did at 35.
In Rotterdam, Federer’s opponents didn’t just cooperate with him; they took themselves out the competition entirely. First, Tomas Berdych, a potential challenger, got sick. Then the last player to beat Federer, David Goffin, retired from his semifinal after a ball ricocheted off his racquet and nearly into his eye. Then, Federer’s opponents in the semis and final, Robin Haase and Grigor Dimitrov, also fell ill. On Sunday, Federer lost two of the first three games to Dimitrov, then won 11 of the last 12 in a 55-minute sprint to the title.
“I was expecting it to be tough today,” Federer said. “I thought this wasn’t going to be the result, but he looked to be struggling a bit and I never looked back. I was able to execute my tennis the way I wanted to.” In those 55 minutes, Federer had time to hit 15 winners and break serve four times.
“You do the best you can and play with whatever you have,” said Dimitrov, who was swinging for the fences from the start. “I was following my game to the capacity I could and that was the result.”
Unstrung: Roger Federer's resurgence
But while this match was over in little more than the blink of an eye, it did include one telling moment.
Dimitrov won the first game at love with a bullet winner, and went up 15-30 on Federer’s serve in the next game. The Bulgarian, knowing he only had so much energy available to expend, was standing closer to the baseline than usual and taking the rallies to Federer. That is, until Federer recognized it and adjusted—it didn’t take him long. Serving at 1-2, Federer missed a first serve. Rather than kicking the second ball into the corner, he went hard with it into Dimitrov’s body, caught him leaning forward, and forced an error. Federer would do the same thing two more times in the early going, and elicit an error from an over-aggressive Dimitrov each time.
Federer’s adjustment reminded me of the way he broke Marin Cilic’s rhythm at the start of the fifth set in the Australian Open final. He recognized that Cilic was dialed in on his forehand return, so he took a little more risk with his serve and mixed up its location; he knew that holding serve once might be enough to break Cilic’s momentum, and he was right. Federer took what looked to be an overwhelming strength of Cilic’s in that moment—his forehand—and broke it down.
One of Federer’s old coaches, Paul Annacone, who was calling the Rotterdam final for Tennis Channel, likes to talk about Federer’s “recognition” skills In practice, Federer works on combination drills that help him recognize immediately where his opponent’s return is going, so he can, if at all possible, get around the ball and use his forehand. On Sunday, Federer was just as good at recognizing Dimitrov’s aggression, recognizing that it could be a problem for him, and finding a way to use it against him.
Federer has always been praised for his natural talent and smooth shotmaking. When we marvel at how well he’s playing at 36, we typically marvel at how undiminished he is physically, how he still has that same spring in his step that he has always had, how he can still cover the corners and knife his way to the net like few others. But it’s also what’s going on in Federer’s head that matters, and has always mattered. While he can make the sport look flowing and effortless, in reality he has always been a match player, someone who searches for the right shot in the right moment that will win him the point he needs, even if it’s pretty or spectacular. His second serves into Dimitrov’s body on Sunday, as well as the serves he used to escape Cilic in Melbourne, won’t be replayed on any highlight reels, but they were crucial to those wins.
At 36 and beyond, Federer’s physical skills will diminish. But his ability to recognize what his opponent is doing well and finding ways to counter it shouldn’t decline. His tactical acumen will continue to play a big and underrated part in his success.
Federer still wields the racquet of fire that Simon Barnes wrote about during his peak in 2006. But now we can see that, in truth, Federer was never choreographing any dances with his opponents, or conspiring with them to help him excel. He was, and still is, conspiring against them, and that’s why he’s No. 1 again.
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