Fifteen for Federer

23:53 Sun 05 Jul 2009. Updated: 23:13 27 Jul 2009
[, ]

Federer won his fifteenth Grand Slam title, and his sixth Wimbledon title, today in a remarkable five-set match, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14. That last set isn’t a typo, it really was sixteen games to fourteen. The longest fifth set, in terms of games, in Wimbledon history, and probably in playing time also. Andy Roddick did better, far better, than I or many others expected, and did not lose his serve until the last game of the match.

As well as in its own right, the final was also remarkable for its contrast to last year’s incredible final. Gone were the topsy-turvy exchanges of brilliance, with Federer and Nadal frequently vying to outdo each other in terms of ridiculous winners. Instead we were presented with a completely different kind of tennis that was at almost the same level, but was tightly focused on one shot: the serve. I don’t mean this in a bad way; I didn’t think that the final was nothing but bashing serves in. To see both of them do that, hour after hour, was a sight indeed, but the tension during the rallies was greatly heightened by it also.

Last year, the tension during every rally was high because both players fought unbelievably hard for every one, and each of them seemed capable of wresting unlikely points from the other at any time. This year, the tension during every rally was high because the rallies were rare, each one a fleeting moment of weakness for the server, and hence precious to both.

Much was made of Roddick’s “makeover”, of his being a different player now. There is some truth to that, but he still looked a lot like the old Roddick. The changes in his game were mostly subtle. At that level, subtle changes can make a huge difference. He did much of what he always did, serving huge serves with tremendous consistency, pounding the forehand, and mostly trying to keep the points short. He moves better now, which undoubtedly helps a great deal. He seemed to be able to generate a little more angle off of his forehand, surprising Federer a couple of times. He put his approach shots a little deeper, and those inches made Federer much less able to simply tee off and pass. (In the past, Federer has punished Roddick for coming to the net in ways that looked as if they were playing an exhibition match.) Roddick also seemed to have significantly improved his backhand, and generated winners out of nowhere in rallies a few times that, again, seemed to surprise Federer.

And again, his serve. Roddick’s first serve percentage was seventy. 70% when his average first serve speed was 127 miles per hour. In the last set, his first serve was in 74% of the time. He won 83% of the points when his first serve went in, a fairly phenomenal number when combined with his first serve percentage.

Before his match with Karlovic, Federer commented (not as a dig at Karlovic) that a player was really only as good as their second serve. I wondered, watching this match, whether Roddick would make him reconsider this maxim.

In many ways, the first set followed the usual script. Few break chances on either side. Then Federer had several at 5-5, and the expectation was that he would break Roddick, and that this would essentially determine the match. Federer, however, was unable to break, and then his play on his own service game after that was relatively poor—and Roddick broke to take the set 7-5.

Federer was unable to make inroads against the Roddick serve in the second set, and this went to a tiebreak. Again, going by past experience, one would assume that Federer would pull it together here to take control. Both of them have extremely good tiebreak numbers. Here are the points, Federer first and Roddick second:

0-1: Roddick serves first and simply hits it too hard (143mph) for Federer to deal with.
0-2: Federer hits a forehand long off of Roddick’s second serve return.
1-2: Federer service winner.
1-3: Roddick service winner.
1-4: Roddick ace. (Federer challenges unsuccessfully.)
1-5: Federer second serve, followed by a rally in which Roddick produces one of the aforementioned backhand surprises, and forces the error.

I think it was at this point that I said—incredulous—“Roddick’s going to win this tiebreak!”

2-5: Federer service winner.
2-6: A textbook point from Roddick. The big first serve forces a weak return, Roddick puts a forehand in Federer’s forehand corner forcing another weak reply, and comes into the net to easily put away the volley. This sets up four set points, four chances at a two-set lead.
3-6: Federer’s return isn’t strong, but goes to Roddick’s backhand. Roddick pushes the ball back to Federer, who hits a forehand to Roddick’s forehand corner. Out of position, Roddick hits a very hard forehand down Federer’s backhand line. Federer is there, and makes the backhand half-volley into the open court look incredibly easy. This was the first rally of the tiebreak where Federer looked like Federer. (Or had the chance to look like Federer.)
4-6: Federer service winner out wide.
5-6: Federer ace out wide.

Federer has now saved three set points. At 6-5, it seems inevitable that Roddick is feeling some tension.

6-6: Roddick misses the first serve long. Federer slices the second serve back to Roddick’s forehand, and Roddick hits a strong approach shot to Federer’s forehand corner. Federer doesn’t seem to get the shot he wants on the ball, and fires back a down-the-line shot that rises up quite high.

Roddick misses the volley to the open court.

7-6: Roddick misses the first serve. Federer slices the second serve back to Roddick’s forehand, and Roddick hits to Federer’s backhand. Federer replies with a slice, and Roddick this time puts his forehand strongly to Federer’s backhand and comes in. This time, however, his approach shot wasn’t deep enough, and Federer has plenty of time to come up with a backhand to Roddick’s feet that he can’t handle.

8-6: Federer misses the first serve. The rally ends when Federer slices to Roddick’s backhand and Roddick then puts the shot long.

From 2-6 down, Federer won six straight points to take the set. Saving four set points, two of them on Roddick’s serve, was quite ridiculous, and to do so in order to prevent himself from going two sets down was amazing. Roddick’s best chance (apart from his hitting an unreturnable serve) was at 6-5, and that volley was indeed a poor miss. Some credit must be given to Federer, who looked as if he never stopped believing for a moment that he would win the tiebreak. (In truth, I suspect that Federer actually thought he would lose the tiebreak.)

The third set went on serve as well. Another tiebreak. Federer gets a minibreak to go up 2-1 after Roddick can’t handle a slice shot of Federer’s that barely made it over the net. Federer shows off his brilliance with a crosscourt pass and then hits a service winner to go 4-1 up. A good return and pressure from Federer’s forehand gives him a 5-1 lead. Roddick serves well and controls the rally to get to 2-5, then returns well to control the rally and make it 3-5. Federer plays the next rally exquisitely and finishes with a crosscourt pass for 6-3. Roddick again serves well to control the point and forces the error from Federer with a forehand on the line. Roddick hits a service winner, so Federer is down to his last set point, this one on his serve.

His serve is extremely strong, and he makes no mistake in putting away the soft return.

Is it unfair to boil the match down to the difference between Roddick at 6-5 in the second set tiebreaker and Federer at 6-5 in the third set tiebreaker? How much of that is tiny fluctuations that could be called “luck”? How much of it is down to the ludicrous consistency that has seen Federer reach 21 straight Grand Slam semifinals or better, seven straight Wimbledon finals, six straight Grand Slam finals, 16 of the last 17 Grand Slam finals?

Roddick didn’t go away. He still hadn’t lost his serve, and he didn’t lose it in the fourth, whereas Federer did.

So on to the fifth set, and Federer has been broken twice and still hasn’t broken Roddick in four sets.

Somewhere around the three-all or four-all mark, I think, Federer faced two break points, the first (and only) break points he faced in that final set. He hit aces on both of them. After that, Roddick never threatened the Federer serve.

At time of writing, I misremembered this stage badly. It was at seven-all that Federer faced break points, and he saved them with a service winner and a strong serve followed by an easy forehand winner, not aces.

But Roddick never faced much threat on his own serve, either, and on it went. 6-all. 8-all. 10-all.

At around 11-all, something seemed to change in Federer, and he finally started to read the Roddick serve, and to find his own forehand. He asserted himself in rallies more, and pushed Roddick to deuce in two successive service games. Finally, at 14-15, Federer got the first point. This was more fraught for Roddick given Federer’s recent pressure, and Roddick shanked a forehand to go down 0-30. A service winner made it 15-30, another 30-all, and another 40-30. It seemed as if Roddick would serve his way out again. But he missed the first serve on the next point, Roddick made a backhand error, and faced another deuce. Service winner, but then an error off a deep Federer return. Deuce. Second serve. A strange dink return from Federer that Roddick had to rush to net for, and then he missed deep at Federer’s feet—although Federer made the winner anyway. Advantage Federer, Federer’s first match point and first break point in I don’t know how long. Second serve. A brief rally, and Federer’s alternation of a slice backhand followed by a topspin backhand draws the final error from Roddick.

While much will no doubt be made of Roddick’s gameplan for this match, I think that Federer’s might be more noteworthy, and particularly because of what looked like unshakable discipline in sticking to it. Federer never seemed to go for all that much off the Roddick serve, and in many of the rallies the same was true. He seemed to believe that he could slice the ball back and that Roddick would not, in the long run, be able to match him in rallies—or that he would bring Roddick in and beat him at the net. Roddick proved him wrong in the short term many times, but Federer still stuck to the plan. He made his errors, including errors when he went for winners, but it seemed to me that he had too much faith in the plan to let that move him. At first I thought that Federer was off form somehow, that he couldn’t go for the winners, or even deep court shots, that he might play against Nadal, but later I felt that it wasn’t that he couldn’t but that he didn’t think the extra risk was worth it given the likelihood of Plan A working.

If Roddick’s plan was to serve phenomenally, move well, hit deep approach shots and control short points, Federer’s seemed to be to serve phenomenally and then only go for winners if they seemed like high percentage shots or if Roddick charged the net, while otherwise just giving the ball back to Roddick—especially with lots of slice. I don’t remember when this was, but at one stage there were back to back points in which first Federer put a slice short in the court to Roddick’s forehand and Roddick, trying to generate pace off it, hit it into the net. On the next point, Roddick hit a similar slice shot to Federer, but Federer smoothly generated all the pace and placement he wanted and put it away. He happily took short shots that Roddick might deliver, but otherwise seemed content to just put it back, sure that in the long run Roddick couldn’t consistently hurt him. And, in the very long run that was this five-set match, he turned out to be right.

He was aided hugely by his own serving, particularly under pressure—e.g. acing his way out of the break points in the fifth, and serving his way back to 5-6 in the second-set tiebreak. For all the power of Roddick’s serve, it was Federer who came out with far more aces: 50 to Roddick’s 27. That serving, plus his capacity to stick to the plan over the entire match, and further his ability to stick with the fifth set through thirty games, shows a tremendous mental resilience on his part that I’m not sure he gets enough credit for, despite the statistics he puts up that would be clearly impossible without such resilience.

Despite being a Federer partisan, I felt extremely sorry for Roddick. He played an amazing, incredible, match, probably the best match I’ve seen him play, and further one in which he used all his strengths to great effect and never seemed fazed by his weaknesses, which were also much less in evidence. He won 37 consecutive service games, including eight where being broken meant losing the match. He’s displayed great heart throughout his career, and I’d love to see him continue to rise to the top of the game again.

As for Federer, I’m curious to see how things go. I’d obviously love to see him continue to excel, but I wonder what his focus and form will be like through the hard court season, with impending fatherhood and the aftermath of getting titles #14 and #15 within the span of a month. I’m sure he’s intent on defending his US Open title, and that should be an extremely interesting tournament, particularly since Nadal will (hopefully!) be back, and since Federer’s other major rivals (Murray, Djokovic, and, yes, Roddick) are all more comfortable on hard courts.

Tomorrow, Federer will also be the number one player in the world again. Granted, Nadal is out with injury, but on the other hand, it’s hard to argue that Federer is undeserving given that his last four Slam results are Win, Finalist, Win, Win.

2 Responses to “Fifteen for Federer”

  1. Niall Murphy Says:

    I was for Fed, obv., and I was glad he won, but I also would like to see Roddick go further. I disliked him as a player in 2003 – but he’s matured.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    I felt bad for Roddick too, and I do really admire his dedication. He shrugged off the terrible head-to-head record between them, and a number of awful beatings (e.g. AO 2007) and played like he expected to win. He’s also done a lot of work this year to improve his fitness and form, and I respect that he’s still fighting hard at it.

Leave a Reply