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Roger Federer, hidden teacher

Matt Zemek



Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

I used to volunteer for Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign against Al Gore in the 2000 Democratic Party primary. Bradley, in his speech at the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles — where Gore accepted the party’s nomination — offered a speech which wasn’t sexy or spectacular. It was full of subtle wisdom, the kind of wisdom Roger Federer taught to every young tennis player on Friday at Wimbledon against Rafael Nadal.

Bill Bradley, on that night 19 summers ago, offered this explanation about the need for society and government to respond urgently to the problems of the day:

Bradley said that if a natural disaster or a massive accident or crisis happened in one place at one time, everyone in America would naturally want to know how to help and would act to deal with the emergency. He then said that problems such as child poverty aren’t like that.

This isn’t a bomb hitting Chicago or — as would happen one year after Bradley’s speech — a terrorist attack with planes flying into buildings in New York.

Child poverty or other pervasive problems don’t carry the effect of a bomb going off, or of an earthquake leveling hundreds of buildings and plunging a huge metropolitan area into a state of dire emergency. These problems are spread across every state and places both urban and rural. They didn’t start at one time. They are slow-motion disasters. They are hidden crises.

You might know one person or family going through a very rough time, to the point of facing a home eviction or another moment of extreme stress, but you probably don’t know hundreds of such families (unless you are a social worker). You might know a specific collection of people in your neighborhood who are desperately struggling, but it’s hard to know a whole city full of people.

It is a quiet tragedy. Its bitterness and misery are subtle in their pervasiveness and reach. Its effects are devastating, but without the 8.0 earthquake which causes bridges to crumble and buildings to collapse.

Bradley emphasized that a truly good society and a truly good government would act on these “subtle crises” or slow-motion disasters as urgently as they would act in response to a bomb, an attack, or an earthquake.

Okay, you might be wondering: What the truck does this have to do with tennis, and that entertaining Federer-Nadal match at Wimbledon on Centre Court?

My colleague at Tennis With An Accent, Mert Ertunga, will take you inside the tactics of the match, particularly through the prisms of the serve and return for both players. I have never been an expert on tennis tactics. My area of expertise is in the INNERGAME, the psychology of sports.

If you know a young tennis player and want to teach him or her how to handle this sport, show this Federer-Nadal match.

This is the lesson Federer taught to the world on Friday evening: Have a short memory.

A young player will look at this match and see all the incredible points and dazzling shots and all-court quality from the two players. From those brilliant demonstrations of technique and form… and footspeed and racquet skills… and all those visible, physical displays of tennis genius, a player can certainly learn.

“Oh, so THAT’S how you square up to a shot. So THAT’s how you drive through a two-handed backhand. So THAT’s how you prepare to volley a slice with its particular amount of spin.”

Yes, there is plenty to learn in a purely technical context from this match, if you are a young tennis player who wants to grow up and compete for big titles. Of course there is a lot to learn on the physical side of things.

Yet, the physical element means very little in this or ANY sport if not complemented by the mental side. Federer showed why on Friday.

It is not a visible thing, but it is real: When an opponent plays a phenomenal point, especially in a big situation, a huge message is being sent across the net. That message — which Nadal has conveyed to Federer so many times over the years — is this: “You can play great points and still lose. I can take this match away from you even when you do everything well.”

How many times have we seen Rafa turn a match against not just Federer, but a HOT, in-form version of Federer, by playing a point which destroys souls and crushes all hope?

Think of 4-2 30-15, in the first set of the 2009 Australian Open final. That’s how Rafa came back to win the first set and stay in front on the scoreboard in that match.

Think of the times in other matches when Nadal has planted a defensive lob off a scorching Federer forehand on the baseline, resetting the point and eventually winning it? You could FEEL Federer inwardly groaning — you never saw it through his poker face, but you knew he felt helpless, and one point later, Nadal would break him after Federer either sliced a backhand into the net from the ad corner, or made a panicky net approach and got passed easily.

If you have seen it once, you have seen it a million times — but the subtle part of this is that you never “saw” it to begin with. Mentally flinching, mentally shrinking, happens inside. It is a hidden and subtle weakness, not an obvious physical one.

Nadal played many of those same incredible points on Friday, and in big situations, too.

The first and fifth points of the very crucial first-set tiebreaker — which Federer badly needed to win to get ahead on the scoreboard — were Nadal at his vintage best. He played absolutely ridiculous defense against strong Federer shots placed expertly to the corners or outside lines of the court. Federer hit an A-level shot. Nadal responded by hitting an A-plus-level shot to another corner of the court.

Young players have to realize that the magic of Federer — and really, the magic of the Big 3, very much including Rafa (who played well on this day and still lost, because his opponent reached such a high standard) — is not so much that they are so damn talented.

Of course, they ARE so damn talented… but the real key to their otherworldly greatness is that when their opponent plays an incredible point in a big moment, they inwardly acknowledge the other player did extremely well…

and then they move on.

Next point. Let’s win this next point.

If you are thinking about the previous point — SOD TRUCKING SLAMMIT, THAT’S NOT FAIR! I SHOULD HAVE WON THE POINT! HOW DID HE DO THAT?!?!?!? — that means you’re not giving full attention to the only point you can control: The one you are playing NOW, not the point you were playing 20 seconds ago.

It is not an outwardly visible thing, but it happens inside: Players can have all the talent in the world, but if they think about the point they played 30 seconds ago, and how gutting it was to lose it… they will get smoked in the ensuing two minutes.

Federer wiped his slate clean after each and every huge Nadal point: in the first-set breaker, then in the tough 3-1 service game in the third set — which was, in retrospect, very important, since Federer’s first serve was off in that game — and then after the missed overhead at 5-4, 30-30 in the fourth set, bringing up Nadal’s break point and his big chance to change the match one last time.

Federer hit a lot of great serves, forehands, backhands, volleys, and slices… but if you are a young player, listen well: The best and most important thing Federer did against his nemesis and rival on Friday was to forget the previous point and play the next one.

Yes, young tennis players, you have to be talented. You have to display good technique. You have to have physical stamina. No one disputes this.

You also have to play the next point and forget about how great your opponent is.

This is a hidden part of the game, but hidden — or subtle — does not make it any less vital to success.

This is the INNERGAME, which Federer has often failed to master against Nadal. In the 2017 Australian Open final and in every non-claycourt match played since then between the two men, that mental fortress has remained intact in the face of the Spaniard’s all-out assault.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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