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For Federer, Near-Perfect is Good Enough

Mert Ertunga

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

My friend Andrew Burton, whose tennis opinion I trust implicitly, wrote a piece for Tennis with an Accent on Thursday, a no-nonsense preview of the Wimbledon semifinal clash between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. It was probably the most substantial preview on the match that I read among many in the last 48 hours. The piece touched on what were, in his view, the patterns of intrigue to watch on Friday.

One of those he underlined was Federer’s return placement, more specifically on the ad side. Andrew remarked on the balance of slice and over-the-top returns on that wing.

So, in this piece, I will limit my commentary and analysis to one area mainly, the returns, and one other smaller area, long rallies. It will not be a long piece where I go into full-analysis mode like others I have done. Therefore, I would recommend that you check out two other write-ups before reading on, in order to completely absorb what follows below. One is Andrew’s preview noted above; the other is my post-match analysis from November of 2015, written after Federer’s three-set win over Nadal in the ATP Basel final.

Now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story…

I am going to fork out some numbers and add my comments in two stages:

1) Federer’s backhand return numbers in terms of slicing (or chipping) and coming over-the-top (includes spin and drives).

This relates to Andrew’s first point in his list of “what should you watch for.” You should, I reiterate, read my Basel match report first, as a prelude, if you have time. It was in that match that Federer blatantly turned to this trend. The details on that particularity and his related comments on the topic later in the year are in that article.

In Friday’s match, Federer made 39 backhand returns. He missed 23, but that is outside my scope here. I am only interested in what he did with the ones he made (again, see Andrew’s piece). 39 out of 62 is an incredibly high percentage (63%) for Roger on backhand returns, considering how well Rafa was serving, especially in the first three sets.

He sliced his backhand return only on ONE (1) occasion. He came over the top the other 38 times, which makes his 39-of-62 success rate on backhand returns even more impressive. Roger was *not* merely driving them back, but rather hitting them with the intention of pushing Rafa back or around, and still made that many returns.

Side note: If you are wondering about Roger’s numbers on forehand returns, he hit 47 and got 32 in.

2) Federer’s overall return placement. I am including both forehand and backhand returns because I am strictly interested in where he placed the returns on the court here, not whether he sliced them or came over-the-top (that was in number 1 above).

Again, this relates to Andrew’s second point in his list of what to watch for in his preview. It adds to number one above in the sense that it was not only in Roger’s plan to come over the top on returns at any cost, but also to place them deep in the middle on both backhand and forehand returns! I thought (incorrectly) prior to the match that Roger was going to aim for Rafa’s deuce corner and make him reach on his backhand as much as he could.

Yet, here are the numbers (by my count):

He made 71 total returns. He did NOT show a preference for the deuce corner (Rafa’s backhand) over the ad one. He hit 12 to the deuce corner, 10 to the ad corner. In other words, he did not display an inclination to aim at Rafa’s backhand.

Guess how many times he hit straight to the middle of the court, mostly aiming deep to the baseline, making Rafa back up or hit a half-volley from the baseline: 49 times! He went 22 times to the corners (combined) and more-than-double times to the middle.

Quite effective in my opinion, because those returns forced Rafa to make a quick choice as to whether to hit a forehand or backhand on the second shot. His second hit fell short at times or at least gave Roger the edge in the beginning of the rally.

Done with the returns!

Now, to my “other” comment. Yes, Roger was trying to keep the points short. Yes, it was to his advantage not to engage in back-and-forth duels from the baseline. Yes, fine. But, when he had to play from the baseline, he also came out on top.

You can call it an anomaly. Or you can say “well, it’s faster because it’s on grass, that’s why he out-rallied Rafa.” (Though if you say that, you better not be among those who claimed that the courts were slower; you can’t have it both ways, right?) The bottom line is, on this Friday, Federer also beat Nadal from the baseline.

– The two players engaged in 76 rallies of five shots or more. Federer won 45, lost 31.

– 20 out of those 76 rallies lasted nine shots or more. Nadal and Federer split them 10 each.

– Out of those 20 rallies of nine shots or more, Federer won the most important ones early in the third set, which enabled him to decisively take charge of the match.

In fact, on those points, I would even argue that Federer passed up a few opportunities to attack and/or approach the net in those rallies, as though he sensed that he was going to outlast Nadal from the baseline. He did!

I am specifically referring to:

(1) the 12-shot rally that Roger won to break Rafa’s serve at 2-1

(2) the outrageous 23-shot rally in the (next) 3-1 game that he won when he faced a break point at 30-40

(3) and the 25-shot rally two points later at deuce that he won, giving him his first game point to confirm the break, which he did, and went up 4-1.

Roger won two more rallies of nine shots or more later in that third set to win it, leading 5-2 in that category.

The two men went 3-3 on points that went nine shots or more in the fourth set, but in the key third game, there were two rallies that went eight shots, won both by Roger. In the first point of the game, Roger pushed Nadal from corner to corner, three shots in a row after the return, before Nadal finally missed. Then, on the 15-30 point, Roger hits a deep backhand to Rafa’s forehand corner and finishes the point on the eighth shot with a forehand winner. Roger took the definitive lead in that game when he broke Rafa’s serve and went up 2-1.

Federer probably needed a perfect performance to hold down the fort on Centre Court of Wimbledon against Nadal, who was firmly favored to win – in fact, I can’t think of one pundit/writer who did not favor Nadal before the match began, although surely there was one or two. I cannot call it “perfect” because of the significant drop in his level in the last four games of the second set.

Let’s call it near-perfect nonetheless, and apparently, that was enough.

He will at least need another one of those, or even better, to deal with Novak Djokovic in the final on Sunday.

Top-ranked male player for Turkey (1988, 1990) Member of Turkish Davis Cup team (1990-91). Davis Cup Captain, Turkey (1993). Played satellites and challengers (1988-91) Played NCAA Div 1 Tennis (3-time all-Sun Belt Conference Team) Tennis professional and coach (1991-2008) Writer for Tenis Dunyasi (largest monthly tennis publication for Turkey) since 2013 Personal tennis site: www.mertovstennisdesk.com

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