Roger Federer had a poor 2013 season, but it culminated in a good string of victories which left his fans optimistic for next year. The advantage that he has over others is that the talent, the greatness is still intact – it is not like he has to drastically change his game, he just has to deliver consistently. However, to really make an impact, certain changes are inevitably needed.
I present four areas in which I feel Roger Federer needs to improve if he is to have a real shot at the ‘five titles’ target he has set for himself for 2014 –
1. Bulk up and use the larger racquet
The cruel fact that Roger and all of his fans is that on the slow outdoor courts that comprise a lot of the Tour, Federer is being hit off the court by Top 10 players – the Djokovics, the Nadals, the del Potros et al. In his prime, the courts were a lot quicker which suited his game and his forehand was so brutally accurate that he dominated all his opponents. However, with the courts being ridiculously slow these days, I think Roger needs to bulk up and get more power into his game; he needs to realize that placement of the ball won’t be as effective if the ball just sits up – and it tends to do that on the slow, slow courts these days.
Even though it did not deliver all that it promised, I think Federer should give the larger (98 sq. cm.) racquet another go in the off-season; he needs more power in his game to adapt to the times, and the times dictate that a game centered around power will have an advantage. On paper, the decision to change his racquet seems like a no-brainer – he gets a larger sweet spot, minimizes his forehand and backhand shanks, gets more power off his groundstrokes – at the cost of lesser feel in his volleys and drop-shots. However, at this late stage in his career, it is more the task of having to adapt to the new racquet that is the main hurdle.
In my opinion, his natural talent is sufficient enough for him to get the requisite feel with any racquet, so his drop shots and volleys will not necessarily suffer – he just needs to practice with it in the off-season. The power advantage that he will get off the new racquet will outweigh any disadvantage – BUT, all this is subject to how he feels with it. If he doesn’t believe in the racquet, it isn’t worth it.
2. Bring the consistency to his forehand that he had in his prime
All great tennis players have a go-to stroke. When Federer was in his prime, his forehand was accurate and devastating; with Nadal these days, it is a two-shot play that he uses at will: out-wide serve, short reply, forehand winner; with Djokovic, it is his backhand that is terribly consistent. Federer needs to practice out of his skin in the off-season so that he gets that consistency back in his serve and his forehand – with a lot more emphasis on the latter. His serve has been fine for much of the season and there aren’t glaring loopholes in his service motion; the inconsistency in his forehand, however, is a different tale all together.
In London, he had so many second serves which just sat up and asked for a return winner – he judged them all to perfection, set himself up perfectly for the forehand, and then MISSED THEM. The same has happened too frequently this year, and his forehand (once his most destructive shot) has let him down way too often. The forehand unforced error count has been way too high in all of his matches this year, and the consistency that was once associated with his play seems to have been shaken. Federer needs to, like I said previously, practice incredibly hard during the off-season to get to a stage where his forehand is a ‘sure’ shot – he can whip it out any time and have the confidence that it will land inside the lines.
3. Use his kick-serve more
Roger never had the fastest serve; but the placement and variety that he got from the exact same service motion made it very hard to read and was one of the reasons behind his success. With age, the pace has certainly gone down and he can’t serve at 210 km/h frequently these days. A consequence of this has been that he is more involved in his own service games – he is not getting free points and is having to work hard to hold. This, in turn, has been affecting his return games – the mental state gets disturbed after a tough hold, or worse, a break and it is hard to bounce back.
His serve is still a very potent weapon however, and I can’t see him magically increasing his serve speed out of nowhere. The improvement that I want to see is in variety, not in speed – he can get ridiculous angles on his kick-serves out wide, and I would like to see him use it at least once every service game. If he delivers two serves – one down the T, and one of these kick serves – he can get two free points every service game. I know its MUCH easier said than done, but this is what I expect from him.
4. Get more depth on his chip returns
We’ve all been saying it for the past year now – Federer needs to be more aggressive on the returns; get over the ball more, don’t just chip it into play etc. The fact still remains that he has employed the chip very usefully on occasions; the fact that he has kept chipping returns for so long must mean that it is difficult for a single-handed backhand player to just hit returns aggressively. He is the greatest player of all time, you know – if he has stayed away from it, there must be a good reason for him to do so.
Against Juan Martin del Potro in London this year, he employed the deep chip return to great effect to neutralize the heavy serve that del Potro has; it is a great way to cancel the advantage that a big server has. Raonic was commentating for a brief period in that match, and he felt that in his prime, Roger was able to get more depth on his chip returns more often which was one of the reasons he had a lot of success against big servers – a deep slice return snatches away the upper hand the server has, as he has to go back and deal with the slice himself. Remember the 2007 Australian Open semi-final he played against Roddick – he commented later that he expected to see 50 aces fly past him, but it did not happen – it was all because he neutralized Roddick’s serve.
Roger Federer knows all this; it is not as if he dominated the game for three years out of sheer luck. This is just a Federer believer outlining some of the areas he needs to focus on for other Federer fans and tennis fans, in general. These are all minor tweaks; it is not as if he is to create a new game plan – he just has to consistently deliver on the one he has right now.