Friday, 23 February 2018

20 rules to turn a budding tennis player into another Roger Federer

I'd decided not to post anything more about my sporting hero, Roger Federer, until he announced his retirement - but, strangely, that day appears to be receding further into the future with each passing month. Besides, the old boy keeps rewriting tennis history. By reaching the semi-finals of the  Rotterdam Open last week he became the oldest player in the open era to reach (or recapture) the World No. 1 spot, beating the previous holder of that record, Andre Agassi, by three years. It may be the most impressive - and the most unlikely - of all his achievements. Players well over the age of 30 have been known to win the occasional slam, as well as lesser titles - but, because...

...they don't have the reserves of energy needed to play as many matches as their younger rivals, and are more prone to injury and take longer to recover from it, getting to No. 1 is almost invariably beyond their reach. I remember that when Agassi managed it at the age of 33, it seemed like an impossible, unrepeatable feat. Not much fuss was made of Federer's achievement - for instance, the Telegraph chose to ignore it in favour of plucky Brits bursting into tears at the Winter Olympics - because it doesn't excite the public. But it's a big deal for tennis players, who understand just how difficult it is get to the top: Andy Murray...

...may have hastened the end of his career by battling to become World No. 1 at the end of 2016, and Federer - who should have been relaxing by the pool with his feet up after winning the Australian Open last month - disrupted his schedule and made a late decision to compete in Rotterdam because he realised it might be his best chance of overtaking Nadal.

Like millions of other Federasts, I've watched nearly every one of his televised matches over the past six or seven years, because I never knew which one would be his last. That's involved occasional elation- and a lot of disappointment and frustration (the pain I feel whenever he loses to Nadal is akin to an attack of acute pancreatitis - only the pain lasts longer). Federer's achievements during the past 13 months have given me greater pleasure than during any comparable period of his career. I've been pondering how it all came about, and what self-help lessons budding tennis players might learn from the great man's career - here's my list:

(1) Be born with astonishing athletic gifts, e.g. balance, gracefulness, strength, hand-eye co-ordination, and speed. You can grind your way to the top without some of these attributes (Lendl managed it) - but it helps if you don't have to compensate for natural shortcomings.

(2) Harness your emotions - but don't crush them. Federer is evidently a very emotional man - he was a teenage racket-thrower, and he often cries in public at the end of significant matches. He blubbed after winning his first Wimbledon in 2003, and was still at it last week when he beat Robin Haase to become World No. 1 for the fourth time. There have been numerous such episodes in between, including, memorably, after losing to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in 2009. During The Federer Supremacy - 2004 to 2007, when he won a ridiculous total of 11 out of a possible 16 slams - he wore an emotionless, almost Borgian mask on court (only occasionally letting it slip to laugh with delight at having pulled off some impossible shot or other): he rarely questioned line calls, never swore, never snarled at officials. Then, in 2009, after easing the pain of his losing streak to Nadal by winning his first (and only) French Open title and regaining his Wimbledon crown, he faced Juan Martin del Porto in the final of the US Open. Tied at two sets apiece, Federer - seemingly unable to break del Porto's eill, and increasingly maddened by the umpire allowing his lumbering opponent to take up to 10 seconds to challenge line-calls - suddenly started behaving like John McEnroe on a bad day, shouting, glaring, swearing etc. As a result, he lost the match - but he evidently learned a lesson, because, while he now allows himself to get tetchy during matches, has never again (at least on the big stage) allowed anger or frustration to deny him victory.

(3) Be born with an essentially sunny disposition - balanced by a powerful competitive streak.

(4) Be a really nice, humble man - and, at the same time, an arrogant genius who believes you're the best there's ever been, and refuses to accept that anything is beyond you.

(5) Don't be a clown, but have a sense of humour:

(6) Develop a natural playing style that places the least amount of strain on your body - being born with the grace of a ballet dancer helps.

(7) Be more motivated by the prospect of winning than the fear of losing. 

(8) Have a reason, a motivation, for realising your potential. In August 2002, Federer's long-time Australian coach, mentor and father-figure Peter Carter was killed in a road accident in South Africa at the age of 37. The event changed Federer's attitude to tennis - no more goofing off, no more accepting defeat, no more getting by on natural talent: transformed, he won his first grand slam title the following year. Federer cites his determination to honour his dead coach as the motivating force behind his success.

(9) Marry well - there's nothing like a good marriage to stop a man getting too self-critical or too self-centred - because a partner will tell you when you're being a knob or a baby. I wonder if marrying another tennis player helps - Andre Agassi married Steffi Graf, one of the greatest champions in tennis history, in 2001, and went on to recapture the No.1 spot twice in 2003, at the age of 33. Mirka - Mrs. F. -wasn't remotely in Steffi Graf's league of course, but she was a professional player. 

(10) Be blessed with a nemesis - if Nadal hadn't happened along to knock Federer off his throne (by feeding a constant stream of high, looping, double-handed top-spun balls to his weaker backhand wing and embroiling him in endless, energy-sapping base-line rallies, thus proving that a player didn't need to be more talented than Federer to beat him), is there the slightest chance that he would still be competing today, or that he would have turned himself into an even better player in his mid-30s than he was in his all-conquering mid-20s? (Connors had McEnroe, McEnroe had Lendl, Agassi had Sampras, Nadal had Djokovic, Rosewall had Laver etc.) A nemesis forces tennis players develop new skills to beat their arch-rival - and this fresh sense of purpose leads them to extend their careers.

(11) Only develop the muscles that will help you win - Federer looks like a fairly typical fit man when he changes his shirt on court - in fact, he's surprisingly slight: but his upper back is apparently a mass of muscle - which he uses in order to deploy his two most destructive weapons, his serve and his "liquid whip" forehand. 

(12) Don't be too short  - it severely restricts the size of the target you're serving into, leaves you vulnerable to the lob and to the serve that slices away from you... and, while it makes you quicker, it means you have to expend an awful lot of effort reaching awkwardly-placed balls - i.e. just about every ball you'll receive at the top level. Federer's just under 6ft 1ins - the same height as Nadal.

(13) Don't be too tall - unless you can somehow combine height with speed and agility. True, the upper limit is increasing all the time (Rod Laver was only 5' 8"), and it could well be that a 6' 5" or 6' 6" player will eventually join Federer, Nadal and Djokovic (6' 2") in the pantheon of greatness - maybe Alexander Zverev (6' 6"): he's going through a lean patch right now, but he ended last season at No. 4 - he's still only 20, and we'll just have to see how he fares when he bulks up a bit. 

(14) Don't achieve dominance too soon - Federer says he wishes he'd realised his potential earlier than 22 (when it comes to the youngest player to win a grand slam since 1968, Federer is in 37th place). But I wonder if he'd have been able to handle all that success if it had come to him at, say, 18. His silly hair-do at the time suggests he was still a goofy kid when he first won Wimbledon. Besides, if he had started winning majors earlier, would he still have been around to win three more (so far) after turning 35?  Doubt it.

(15) Win that one key match that unlocks the door to greatness - Federer did it first in 2002 when he shocked the tennis world by beating Pete Sampras in the 4th round at Wimbledon; Lendl did it by overturning a two-set deficit to beat John McEnroe at the French Open final in 1984; Nadal did it by beating Federer at Wimbledon in the classic 2008 final, after losing to the Swiss in the previous two finals, thus proving (to himself as much as anyone) that he wasn't a one-surface player; although Djokovic's first grand slam victory over Nadal was at Wimbledon in 2011, it was arguably his five-set victory over the Spaniard in the titanic 2012 Australian Open slugfest that proved the real key to his later dominance of the sport (he won his next five matches against Nadal); and in the fifth set of last year's Australian Open, Federer was 3-1 down to Nadal - the man who had, humiliatingly, beaten him nine times in eleven grand slam finals - and we Fed fans sighed and rolled our eyes, slumped in our chairs and waited for the greatest player in tennis history to surrender yet another slam to the greatest competitor in tennis history. But Federer, coming back at the age of 35 after a six-month lay-off caused by injury, without a grand slam title to his name in four-and-a-half years, and facing the man he hadn't beaten in a grand slam final in almost ten years, tore up the script. Playing quite superbly, he reeled off the next five games to claim the victory. The door back to greatness swung open, and, since then, Federer has beaten Nadal three times on the trot, and bagged another seven titles, including two grand slams. 

(16) Be stubborn and stick to your guns - but not past the point of insanity. Let's be honest, during his lean periods, Federer has refused to heed good advice. When it became obvious that some opponents - notably Nadal and Djokovic - were better than him from the baseline, he tried to beat them from the back of the court, because that's what had worked for him during the first dominant period of his career. He refused to switch to a larger racket-head - even though everyone told him it would pay dividends. For a long time, he refused to use drop-shots, because that wasn't "proper tennis". When he realised that his extended base-line rallies played to his rivals' strengths, he tried to shorten exchanges by pulling the trigger too early - going for high-risk winners instead of manoeuvring his opponents off the court so that he had an easy put-away. Rather than trying to turn his relatively weak backhand from a constant target into an effective attacking shot, he continued to use it to chip and block - when he couldn't manage to run round it in time to unleash his rapier-like forehand. Over the years, he gradually started heeding the advice of coaches, friends and family - he stopped trying to shorten rallies with low-percentage shots; the drop-shot became a major weapon; he honed his volleying and began dominating the net; he (finally) adopted a racket with a larger head and a more generous sweet spot; he stepped even further into the court to return serve as early as possible; and, last year, he unveiled the final weapon in his armoury - a ball-tearing topspin backhand passing shot that delighted admirers and disconcerted opponents - where the hell were they supposed to aim the ball now? The result of all these changes - presumably introduced at the behest of, first, Stefan Edberg and, more recently, Ivan Ljubičić (who, as a player, made the very best of his relatively limited talents) - has been an astonishing and wholly unexpected 13 months of success, fuelled by an exhilarating brand of tennis based on unrelenting, controlled, all-out attack! attack! attack! Because he listened to his advisers, and gave way when he was ready to,  Federer is playing better tennis today than during his all-conquering, mid-Noughties pomp.

(17) Learn not to squander your talent on irrelevant points: watching a highlight reel of Federer's greatest early matches is instructive. You gasp or laugh at some extravagantly brilliant winner, only to discover that his wrong-footed opponent has won the next three points, and Federer is fighting to save that game: it happened a lot. It's as if his original wonder-stroke distracted him for a few points. I get the impression that he does that less often these days. He used to squander too many break points - his ratio of break points earned to break points won always seemed surprisingly low: again, I get the impression he's less wasteful these days. He also seems to have learned Pete Sampras's trick of only selecting fifth gear when it's absolutely necessary - not, for instance, at 2-2, when it's 30-0 on his opponent's serve, but, rather, when he's leading 5-4 and it's 0-30 on his opponent's serve: the best indication of his uncanny ability to produce the goods when it really matters is his career tie-break record - he tops the list with a 65% win rate, two percent more than the next two on the list, the big serving Sampras and the robotically efficient Djokovic.

(18) Learn to be gracious in defeat - Federer used to be a bit of a sore loser. The worst example of this unpleasant trait was when, during a press conference following his second successive defeat to Djokovic in the 2011 US Open semi-final after reaching match point, Federer was distinctly tetchy and ungracious. Whatever the reason, by refusing to give due credit to an opponent who has just beaten you fair and square - especially one who has ripped an unreachable winner past you to save match point - Federer blotted his "Mr Nice Guy" copybook. His reaction to defeat has improved markedly since then - perhaps because he has got more used to losing, or maybe because those close to him let him know it wasn't a good look.

(19) Don't dawdle between points. One of the reasons I find watching Nadal so intensely annoying is the age it takes him to get ready for the next point (his pace has picked up a bit thanks to new rules, but he does his best to ignore them - and then acts astonished when the umpire hands him a code violation). Federer, despite his almost laconic, panther-like prowl, tends to get through his service games in an eye-blink - I don't know if anyone has kept a record of how many of his service games last less than a minute, but I'd be surprised if the figure isn't twice that of his nearest rival. And yet he never looks rushed. Amazing how quick the game is when a player doesn't coax his shorts out of his bum-crack, spent 15 seconds choosing which balls to use, doesn't smear his (somewhat sparse) hair behind his ears, and learns how to tie his shoelaces properly so he doesn't need to do it 50 times a sodding match.

(20) Be honest and articulate and sound as if you enjoy the game - Federer expresses himself well (in French, German and English) and appears to be quite happy to discuss his tactics before and after a match. It must be excruciatingly boring to answer the same tired old questions about his latest win over Berdych or Dimitrov or what he'll need to do in order to win his next match against Raonic or Wawrinka. But Federer always seems to find something slightly new to say - or, at least, finds a way to dress up the same answers he gave last time so they sound fresh. Above all, he manages to convey a deep and abiding interest in his sport, and an acute awareness of its history and traditions - despite all their success, Djokovic and Nadal barely mention past players, and, if they feel any love for tennis, are adept at masking their enthusiasm.

God, this is long - apologies. 

No comments:

Post a comment