Roger Federer's return to form: The five points that helped chart his comeback

Roger Federer returned in 2017 after a long break last year and has done so with the kind of command and game he has hardly shown before

Vishal Dikshit April 23, 2017 14:03:18 IST
Roger Federer's return to form: The five points that helped chart his comeback

Roger Federer may have pulled out of the clay-court season until the French Open but he has done enough and won enough this year to sneak into the top five rankings again. He returned in 2017 after a long break last year and has done so with the kind of command and game he has hardly shown before.

Here are five aspects of his game he has shown in 2017 that have highlighted his return with a near-perfect record in the season:

The Backhand

Probably the biggest talking point from the 2017 Australian Open final was how Federer barely sliced and instead hammered backhands back towards Rafael Nadal’s forehand. This was unprecedented given how Nadal’s spin-heavy forehand has targeted Federer’s single-handed backhand over the years. But in Melbourne, Federer showed how one could get on top of Nadal’s rolled forehands by using power, hence taking time away from the opponent.

A month-and-a-half later they met again, in the fourth round at the Indian Wells. Federer channelled a stunning display of destructive backhands again to show it was a long-term strategy; he had worked on it during his off time before his return in 2017.

“I think all my coaches throughout my career have told me to go more for the backhand, but I used to shank more. So maybe deep down I didn't always believe that I had it, in the most important moments. But I think that's changing little by little, which I'm very happy about,” Federer said, after beating Nadal 6-2 6-3.

The best of those was the match point Federer nailed when Nadal was serving, down 3-5 to save the match. Nadal served towards the T, Federer was on his toes like a predator on the prowl and sent it crashing to Nadal’s left. Nadal could only look at the spot the ball landed on, in disbelief, and shook his head with an admiring grin in more disbelief.

Such has been Federer’s backhand this year that in the Miami final, the last match Federer played, Nadal targeted Federer’s forehand way more than the backhand. And that did not work either.

Break-point Conversion

Federer’s breathtaking transition from 2016 to 2017 clearly shows in his break-point conversion rate, something that has cost him against top players in the past.

In the 2016 season, his break-point conversion rate read 39.5 percent (92/233). In 2017, after winning the Indian Wells Masters by beating Stan Wawrinka on 20 March 2017, the conversion rate for the year had surged to an imposing 50.4 percent (59/117) — an increase of over 10 percentage points within a span of months. Earlier, Federer would generate so many break-point chances that he would eventually win some of them and hence the set or the match. But his conversion numbers hardly stood out.

Now, with his altered attitude and strategy, the numbers have improved significantly in the 20 matches he has played so far this season. In 2016, for example, his conversion rate over nine matches against the top 15 players stood at 35 percent (23/65). This year, when he played his first six matches against the top 10, the stat rose to an impressive 45 percent (28/62). Not only is his conversion percentage better, he also won more of those points (28 v 23) in spite of generating fewer chances (65 v 62). At the Indian Wells Open overall, Federer won as many as 64 percent (14/22) of the break-point chances he created — 54 percent (7/13) against first serves and a commanding 78 percent (7/9) against second serves.

His conversion rate in the Miami Open that followed did not continue the 2017 trend but his form this year is nothing short of a turnaround.

The New Racquet

After failing to reach three grand slam semi-finals in 2013, Federer switched from 90 to 97 square inches in 2014. But he was playing non-stop and not winning titles the way he wanted to. If players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were already using more powerful frames (95 to 100 square inches), maybe the changes in Federer’s game were not going to show overnight.

Roger Federers return to form The five points that helped chart his comeback

Roger Federer. File photo

Then he took a break in the second half of 2016 to let his knee heal completely after surgery. We may never know all the strategies he implemented during his time off, but we now know that the change in racquet was optimised during this break, especially with that unforeseen backhand.

“I think the backhand has gotten better because I have been able to put in so many hours with the [new] racquet now,” Federer said after beating Nadal at the Indian Wells. “Really, since this year I feel super comfortable with the racquet, and I think I have also gained confidence stepping into it.

"I think it was the work that I had in [the off season]. You never play 10 backhand-to-backhand shots, but in practice, you practice those a ton and eventually, they are ingrained in the system. You need good footwork because if the footwork is not good, you won't be on top of the ball.

Federer also says the bigger size gives him more power and helps him add more topspin to his backhand.

Aggressive Return Game

Let’s talk about Federer’s return game without the backhand or the SABR. With the new approach, it seems like Federer is not hanging back anymore; he is instead reaching out for the ball closer to or inside the baseline. He is not only not defensive anymore, he is playing more tactically. An example of his proactive approach was in the round of 32 match in Miami, against probably the toughest serving opponent he has faced this season when Juan Martín del Potro was serving 3-4 in the first set.

15-30: A strong serve down the T returned with a forehand towards del Potro’s body, making him send a weak return that Federer pounces on for a winner.

15-40: Federer returns with a backhand slice to del Potro’s left, creating space on the other side. When del Potro comes to the net and chips it back, Federer rolls a forehand past del Potro’s right.

That is how Federer has been breaking serves a lot at crunch moments against big opponents. He did it at 3-4 against Nadal in the fifth set in Melbourne, he did it to seal his match point against Wawrinka at the Indian Wells final, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t continue to do it.

Confidence Since The Australian Open Final

“You've got to take the initiative and play your game. In a decisive set, confidence is the difference.”

This was not said by Federer any time recently but written by Chris Evert in her autobiography Chrissie. It applies very well to how Federer went against the odds in the fifth set of the Australian Open final this year to sprint from 1-3 to 6-3 against his arch-rival and nemesis Rafael Nadal. He missed few shots, hit more aces (in percentage terms in the set) than any of the first three sets, raced through the points and capitalised on his first serve.

“Once you win a big tournament like the Australian Open or any big tournament for that matter, you can just bank usually on some confidence,” Federer said. “I am definitely profiting from confidence.”

That win instilled bundles of confidence in him against some top opponents he would go on to beat later on — Wawrinka, del Potro, Tomáš Berdych and Nick Kyrgios. Against these four combined, he has conceded only two sets this year. If you include the last two matches against Nadal (Indian Wells and Miami), it’s only two sets lost in six matches.

“He’s playing good and with high confidence,” Nadal said. “When a top player like him is playing with this high confidence and playing that good, then it’s tough to win.”

That confidence helped him save two match points against Berdych, and survive three tie-break sets — lasting three hours and 10 minutes in all — against a 22-year-old Kyrgios.

Confidence or self-belief was hardly Federer’s weakness in the past when he stopped winning grand slams after the Wimbledon win in 2012 that took him back to the No. 1 spot. It was more about not being able to cross the last hurdle. In 2013, recurring injuries saw him drop out of the top five and an early exit from Wimbledon broke his record streak of 36 straight grand slam quarter-finals.

In the coming years, Federer continued to reach the semi-finals or finals of the major tournaments but was somehow not able to bring the big trophies home. That conquering the insurmountable peak named Novak Djokovic was proving near impossible was one factor, but he was also losing to younger and powerful baseline players such as Marin Cilic (2014 US Open), Andreas Seppi (Australian Open 2015) and Milos Raonic (Wimbledon 2016). He was winning some of the ATP majors but the old stat about the bigger tournaments was being repeated every time he was knocked out: He hasn’t won a grand slam since July 2012.

When in July 2016 he withdrew from the rest of the season, many had written him off already. Who makes a comeback in tennis at the age of 35? It’s not that bad a question about any other player nursing an injury at that age.

The break, as we have seen now, helped him in more ways than one. What is being seen this year is a redefined confidence in Federer with a renewed outlook, especially at an age players are found more often in commentary boxes or on holidays with families after retirement.

When he returned from injury, he beat top 10 players like Berdych and Kei Nishikori to reach the quarter-finals at the Australian Open. When he made it to the finals, the odds were in Nadal’s favour when the match stretched to the fifth set. That was when Federer showed his transformed confidence and his new mantra: “Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it,” is what Federer told himself during the fifth set.

Confidence has now made Federer fearless. His record this season? 19-1. Against the top 10 players? 7-0. In terms of statistics, 2017 may not turn out to be Federer’s best year overall because he is missing most of the clay season, but like he said in Miami recently, “the dream continues,” and his fans will not be complaining.

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