In honor of Roger Federer’s 8th Wimbledon title, here’s a piece I wrote after watching him dismantle Berdych in the third round of the Australian Open this year. Written 1/21/17.
On Friday, us tennis fans watched a highly surprising match. Not as unexpected, perhaps, as Denis Istomin’s 5-hour slugfest victory against Novak Djokovic. But Roger Federer’s 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 beatdown of Berdych was a different kind of surprise. No-one expected an easy win for the Swiss man. Last year, time seemed to have finally caught up to Federer. In January, he lost to a Djokovic in rampant form and then tweaked his knee afterwards while drawing water for his kids’ bath. That was that. Besides a highly surprising run on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon, Federer’s 2016 was over. Out of the window flew his 65 consecutive grand slam streak, and out of the window flew one of tennis’s defining players.
Of course, Federer was going to come back. Federer’s love for the game has shined so brightly these past years that questions about his retirement have long since run dry. Yet hopes were low. Things were touch and go for the 17th ranked player in the world. He lost to the blistering groundstrokes of young Sascha Zverev in the Hopman Cup. In his beginning match at the Australian Open, against a qualifier, he shanked 4 shots in the first game alone. Federer expressed amazement in the press room afterwards, perhaps the first time we’ve ever seen him shocked by his own poor play. As the ever-solid, ever-powerful Berdych loomed in the third round, the situation looked dire. But as it turns out, the situation was only dire for Berdych.
Federer played brilliantly. Just staggeringly well. The kind of play that causes commentators to run out of superlatives: “NO WAY”, “COME ON” or even “like a mongoose on amphetamines!” Federer curled forehands corner to corner, lasered backhands down the line, and feathered volleys away from the lunges of Berdych. His serve was drawn magnetically to the lines. His feet floated over the ground, his balance impeccable. Such glowing praise has been thrown at Federer for years (ever since David Foster Wallace’s Federer as a Religious Experience in 2006). Words fall short of his play. Let us try the statistics.
Federer won 95% of his first serves, 39 of 41. He never faced a break point in any of his 14 service games. At the net he won 20 of 23 points. From the back of the court he was equally dominant, winning 57% of baseline rallies. He ran an average of 7.8 metres per point compared to Berdych’s 9.2. Federer hit 40 winners, and 17 errors. But what do all these numbers really tell us? Statistical perfection doesn’t have aesthetic appeal. Let us try examining what he did to his opponent.
Tomas Berdych, the Czech Bomber, is a relatively permanent fixture in the top ten of tennis. With his immense power, Berdych appears invincible against many players. Against Ryan Harrison on Wednesday his strings hummed with winners. Against Federer, he seemed riddled with weaknesses. His serve was inconsistent in the first set; he moved poorly to his forehand corner throughout; and he lost patience and went for shots that were too large. More global, permanent problems also came through. He lacks a strong forehand down the line, he struggles with the height of his toss, and his foot speed and agility are subpar. Federer’s wide variety of shots highlights such weaknesses. But the other greats have this quality about them as well. Against Djokovic’s implacable depth and movement, Federer himself often looks mortal. Peak Nadal’s speed and strength on the terre batue of Roland Garros has exposed other players’ inconsistencies for a decade. This match wasn’t about Berdych’s weaknesses. Let us try to capture something of Federer, one last time, with a single point.
The score is 5-4, love-love, Federer serving for the second set. As he bounces the ball, commentator Mark Petchey points out that he’s been serving slices out wide with great success, and Berdych should read it. Berdych does read it, shifts his weight to his right and clocks a forehand back. Federer, a little inside the baseline, is taken slightly aback by the power of the shot. He strikes a fairly mediocre forehand down the middle of the court, but on some hunch comes into the net. Berdych rifles a backhand at him, and Federer, impossibly quick, stabs a backhand volley. The ball slants down onto the line and Petchey exclaims “that’s the volley of the tournament!” Berdych can only pop the ball up. Federer puts it away with one of his signature shots, the backhand overhead. 15 – love. Watching the point afterwards, one is still surprised by the backhand volley stab. In tennis, points form predictable patterns. Slow, central approaches are punished. If Federer got to the volley, he would pop it up and it would soon be love-15. But when Federer plays like he did on Friday, tennis bends its rules around him. With such an improbable volley, the flow of the point abruptly halted and reversed course. The point was Federer’s, certainty was Federer’s. The match was Federer’s.
After the match, players and commentators hailed the return of “Vintage Federer.” But this wasn’t a return of the vintage play of Federer. Federer in 2004-2007 played serve and forehand tennis, not the shifting, all-court tennis of Federer in 2017. Instead this was a return of the “certain Federer.” On Friday, Federer put on a show, and Berdych was simply a prop. The match had a foregone conclusion. Other greats have moments like this, “peak” moments. When you watch “peak” Djokovic it is clear that the percentages are forever in his favor, and he can execute every pattern of shots better than his opponents. In the days of ”peak” Nadal, you knew he would fight until death itself and when the opponent’s mind inevitably frayed, the match was over. But “peak” Federer and was an uncertain certainty to Federer. You expect the unexpected. As you watch, you exclaim “did he really just do that?” or wonder “can he do that again?” In essence, each point you wait for surprise. This is the magic of Federer, the magic dust that made Petchey say “I want to go into the locker room after this match and touch him, and then go to the casino. I want some of that.” After a long break, the magic of Roger Federer has returned to tennis.