Would you rather have a signature style, or a fluid one that is useful but never quite your own? Most people would prefer the former; having a unique way of doing things just sounds a lot more heroic than unobtrusively adapting to different situations. It gives you bragging rights even when there are none on offer.
Roger Federer, for all the bragging rights he has accumulated in his career, has never been much of a signature style guy. Yes, we’ve heard the term ‘Vintage Federer’ quite a lot over the years, but that’s more when he hits a particularly unreal shot which could be anything – a drop shot, a volley, a forehand or even a serve. There’s no one way to pigeonhole Federer’s style or his most preferred weapon of destruction; in every win of his we see a new wrinkle to his modus operandi, and that makes us appreciate him even more.
But on grass, and especially at Halle, Federer’s matches over the years have had a certain idiosyncratic quality to them. There’s a common thread that binds his Halle wins into a pool of Federer-ness that is equal parts flexible and familiar. And that flexible familiarity was in evidence once again this week, as the Swiss completed his record-breaking 10th Halle title with a win over David Goffin in the Noventi Open final.
What does Federer’s repetitive pattern in Halle look like? In very basic terms, it is: protect your serve and ride out the storm. It may not sound like the most glamorous or the most Federer-esque manner of winning, but it has served him well enough to give him his own version of La Decima (or ‘Zehnte’, as it would be called in German).
We’ve known for years now that Federer has a lot of weapons in his arsenal to excel on the grass. Those tools have been at their sharpest in Wimbledon, where he has won eight titles and featured in 11 finals overall. If you ever wanted to see Federer at his imperious best, lording it over his opponents with the full range of his spectacular shot-making, you’d only have to watch highlights of his 2017 Wimbledon run or 2005 Wimbledon final.
At Halle, however, the stage and stakes are considerably lower, and that has often meant lesser motivation for Federer. The tournament is also much earlier in the grasscourt season than Wimbledon, a time when the Swiss hasn’t fully made the transition from clay to grass. In other words, it has often featured a Federer who’s not at his best.
He certainly wasn’t at his best for vast stretches of this year’s event. In his tournament opener against John Millman, he looked like a man in a hurry to catch the last train, rushing practically all of his shots and moving forward every half-chance he got. It worked because his skill-set was considerably superior to Millman’s (never mind that strange loss to him at the US Open last year), but it was unlikely to easily subdue his second round opponent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. So Federer went back to his usual game for that match – with surprisingly underwhelming results.
That Tsonga has the tools to push Federer out of his comfort zone on grass was made clear nearly a decade ago, in his blazing win at the 2011 Wimbledon quarter-final. This week in Halle too, Tsonga served well enough and crunched his forehand hard enough to take the racquet out of the Swiss’ hands. By the third set, Federer was struggling to keep up with the pace of Tsonga’s shots, and also missing regulation forehands and volleys.
So what did Federer do? He hung on to his serve like his life depended on it. Tsonga was playing like a man possessed, but the fact that Federer refused to relent on his serve meant that the Frenchman was under increasing pressure to hold on at his end. A small slip-up was inevitable given Tsonga’s risky brand of tennis, and a small slip-up was all that Federer needed. He struck like a viper the moment he got an opening at 5-5, and then served it out without much trouble.
There was more of the same in the quarter-final against Roberto Bautista Agut. By the middle of the second set the Spaniard was bullying Federer in the rallies, and he looked the far more comfortable player down the home stretch – until he didn’t. At 4-5 in the third set he made three unforced errors, the kind of which he hadn’t made for an hour, and just like that Federer had the match.
The semi-final against Pierre-Hugues Herbert was much more straightforward, but in the final against Goffin that Houdini act by Federer was on show again – at least in the first set. Goffin came out of the blocks the more confident player, and had three break points midway through the set. Given the high level the Belgian had been playing at, both in this match and the tournament as a whole, we might have been looking at a different result if he had taken any one of those break points.
But Federer saved them all. And then he waltzed through the next set and a half the way a man who has a date with destiny is supposed to waltz.
This is not the first time that Federer has scraped through in Halle while playing well below his best; in years past he’s even had to save match points before lifting the trophy. How much has the serve contributed to this run?
Some would say Federer has been borrowing from the Pete Sampras grasscourt playbook of serve-botting through games on end and then stealing a break when the opponent’s guard is down. But Federer’s serve is not as good as Sampras’, nor does he look fully in control in his service games the way Sampras did. With the Swiss, it’s more the refusal to get broken – the stubbornness to protect his own territory, if you will – that has made him so difficult to beat him at Halle.
Nearly everything about grass suits Federer’s game, and when he plays on the surface he doesn’t leave much to chance. Come what may, he makes it a point to keep his biggest weapon in fine working order at the Wimbledon tune-up event. Even if his forehand is misbehaving, or his movement is sluggish, or his net play is below-par, he gets enough first serves in play to keep himself in the match.
Doing that gives him the time and the opportunity to repeatedly ask questions of the opponent’s serve, and eventually, the answers run out; there are only so many line-painting forehands they can make before they start missing them. That’s pretty much been the story in 10 different Halle campaigns for Federer.
In the context of Federer’s career, 10 titles in Germany is probably one of his most deceptively flattering achievements. The number has a fabulous ring to it, but winning a 500 (which was actually a 250 until 2015) tournament so many times is far less impressive than, say, winning 10 (or even eight) Wimbledon titles. Federer himself admitted he never attached too much importance to the magic figure of 10; his reaction to the win was a far cry from the one he gave at winning his 100th career title at Dubai earlier this year (which he had said was “an absolute dream come true”).
“When it was all over…it was the first time I really thought of how it felt winning because I didn’t think I was visualizing, imagining how it would feel to win my 10th here,” Federer said after the win over Goffin. “I wasn’t even really nervous because I felt I had been playing good, I’ve been so balanced that I was just at a good place.”
But while the value of its numerical aspect might be questionable, Federer’s latest win is a reminder of just how much effort he puts into the grasscourt swing. He’s been coming to Halle for more than 15 years now, and he’s been reaching at least the final practically every single time – irrespective of whether he’s playing his best tennis or not. That’s as much down to his grasscourt skills as his stubborn self-belief; he tries harder to stay afloat on grass than anywhere else, and that shows in his results.
‘Staying afloat’ doesn’t sound like the best term to describe a Federer feat. But in the specific environment of the Noventi Open, it may be the most appropriate. You might even say it’s his signature style of winning titles – 10 of them now – in Halle.
Updated Date: Jun 24, 2019 09:48:10 IST