“Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws … a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.”
David Foster Wallace
November 2016, a sad, but inevitable day for tennis; Roger Federer is out of the top 10 ranking for the first time in 14 years, following knee surgery and continual back problems. Fast forward four months, and the Swiss has struck back with an Australian Grand Slam, and a 25th Masters title, after the 35-year-old’s success at the Indian Wells over Stan Wawrinka.
How? How has an athlete managed to remain at the pinnacle in such a demanding sport, for so long? A sport where you’re on your own, there’s no hiding, there’s no moment to take a break and rely on a teammate; it’s you and your opponent. Ok, one can point to the motivation/ luxury that $102,814,690 – and counting – in prize money that’s helped the Swiss man’s game. But, it is his own game plan which has allowed him to stay at this level.
Federer’s offensive approach, which works like clockwork on harder and faster surfaces allows him to dictate the pace; being the aggressor lets the great man be in control. The game is played at the tempo which he sees fit; a pace he can maintain through sheer class and skill.
Speaking to the Telegraph, Federer explains how his strategy in matches allows him to take the initiative; he can maintain the level as he’s rarely chasing matches. The Swiss is making the opponent do the thinking, and reacting, by constantly putting the man on the other side of the court on the back foot.
“I do believe that when you’re playing offensive you have to do less reacting. Whereas if you’re always reacting to what your opponent gives, it’s very hard.
Eventually throughout the week or throughout the year or throughout your career, if you’re always compensating and running after the ball, it’s going to catch up with you.”
Roger Federer, speaking to the Telegraph in 2014
Of course, it’s harder to be the aggressor. In any sport, a game plan is easier to execute where defence comes first. But, the longevity in such a sport has a telling factor when you compare Roger to the likes of Rafa Nadal. A natural defensive player, it’s in Rafa’s makeup to allow the other player to make the decisions, and then play on the counter when it suits the Spaniard; a master at turning defence into attack.
However, in terms of sustaining a career at the top level, this has clearly played into the hands of Roger to favour the offensive side of the game. A longer and more successful career, typified by the recent triumph over the Spaniard in the Australian Grand Slam.
The French Open is a further example of this. The slowest surface by some distance, where Rafa has won the tournament nine times to Federer’s one title. Federer can not dictate the play as much as he’d like to due to the court lacking the zip he needs to execute his plan; the Swiss man instead is forced to be the one reacting; the player chasing the game.
He’s struggled on this surface, and it’s taken its toll on him; summed up by Federer only pulling out of the tournament last year to avoid “unnecessary risk”.
Of course, the management of Federer’s diet, his professional approach to the sport, and ability to steer clear of regular major surgery has helped him maintain this astonishing level at such an age. But, it’s his aggressive and offensive game plan which allows him to do less chasing, and dictating the speed of matches to his own pace across the majority of surfaces.
Who knows how long the Swiss man can continue for, but his 2017 success suggests the tennis player who is ‘”exempt from certain physical laws” isn’t looking at hanging up his racket anytime soon.
Remarkable that Federer’s all-time career earnings are still way short of the top 30 sports teams from 2016…