is roger revolutionising the game?
The Swiss star is doing something beyond even Pete Sampras, writes Chip Le Grand
January 27, 2007
TENNIS is easily befuddled by numbers. Players are measured by ranking points and tournaments won, Grand Slam titles and prizemoney. When it comes to Roger Federer and the debate about his place in the game, it is all too tempting to crunch through the statistics of other great players and line them up like bottles on a baseline.
To appreciate the true genius of Federer is to consider something less tangible and far more important. To see Federer, you need to look not at his game but what it is doing to the games of everyone else. American coach Larry Stefanki, the off-court guru behind the rise of John McEnroe, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marcelo Rios and now Fernando Gonzalez, likens the Federer effect on tennis to the impact that Tiger Woods is having on golf.
Stefanki returned to the tour last year as a full-time coach to work with Gonazalez and has since had the privilege of watching Federer up close in the biggest events on the calendar. He is convinced that Federer is the greatest player in history.
He also works with US junior players and sees the influence Federer will have on the next generation.
It is unlikely any will be as good as Federer. But thanks to the Swiss master, they will know it is not enough to have Pete Sampras's serve or Andre Agassi's return or the competitive instincts of Rafael Nadal. To play in Federer's world, you must have a complete tennis game.
"Roger is very multi-dimensional; he can serve volley, he can chip and charge, he can stay back, he can play defence," Stefanki said in an interview with The Weekend Australian.
"He has a very big forehand. His serve isn't dominating but he gets 70 per cent in and hits the corners, which frees him up in a lot of areas. It is everyone else's job to become more multi-dimensional to try to compete against that.
"Roger has a lot of things to fall back on and everyone else is moving away from just trying to hit one big shot. Men's tennis fell into a rut a little bit that way and now Roger is taking it to a new level where you had better have no holes in your game.
"I see a lot of juniors here in Australia who don't work hard enough on their net game, don't work hard enough on taking the ball early and coming forward, and they become one-dimensional. One big forehand and they think it is going to be good enough. It is not.
"Roger has taken it to that level. Pete (Sampras) just said 'I'm going to hit my serve and my forehand and not care about anything else' and he could get away with it. But not any more.
"Roger has no holes. That is why he stands above everybody else.
"I think he is the best player who has ever played."
The only two players who stand comparison to Federer are Sampras, the winner of more Grand Slam singles titles than any other man, and Rod Laver, the only man to achieve a calendar Grand Slam in the open era (he also won the Grand Slam as an amateur in 1962).
Both are unabashed Federer admirers, with Laver awestruck by what Federer produced against Andy Roddick on Thursday night.
"Roger's got too many shots, too much talent in one body," Laver said. "It is hardly fair that one person can do all this."
For evidence, look not to what Federer did against Roddick but what other players, including Roddick, are having to do.
Roddick was the last player to hold the world No.1 ranking before Federer and, at the age of 21, won a US Open title. He had three great weapons: a thunderbolt serve, masssive forehand and aggressive competitive spirit.
But as Stefanki remarked: "He couldn't keep two balls in in a row on the backhand side."
As a result of this backhand deficiency, his return of serve was poor and his volleying inept.
When Roddick plays well now - and he played brilliantly in Melbourne to beat Marat Safin and Mario Ancic on the way to his ill-fated date with Federer - he talks about his improved return of serve.
When commentators remark on his transformation since teaming with Jimmy Connors last July, they note the improvement in his backhand, increased use of slice and his preparedness to attack the net.
"Andy kept saying if I just keep playing bigger matches it will happen," Stefanki said. "It hasn't happened. Obviously he got a little bit smarter and looked in the mirror a little longer and decided to start working on his game."
Would Roddick have made these changes if not for the rise of Federer?
Nadal is the closest thing Federer has to a genuine rival. He has proven himself to be the bettter player on clay and is the only player to beat Federer in the past eight Grand Slam tournaments, having twice denied him at Roland Garros. He also holds a winning career record against Federer.
But as Federer sunned himself on a beach in the Maldives over the end-of-season break, Nadal sweated it out on a practice court in Mallorca. Nadal's improvement was not evident at this Australian Open.
Whereas he launched an inspired attack on Wimbledon last year - taking the ball earlier on return and rallying closer to the baseline - he appeared to be in a defensive mindset from the moment he arrived in Melbourne. Nadal knows that to challenge Federer on a hard court, he must improve his serve and add more variation in pace and spin to his natural, heavy backcourt game.
"He got a little nervous, a little gun-shy and started running backwards, which is the nature of claycourt players from Spain," said Stefanki, who helped Gonzalez beat Nadal in straight sets.
"I thought he was going to make the transition to play right on the baseline, take his lumps, take the ball on the rise and come to the net. Then he started playing negative. I don't know why he would do that. I know he is the best competitor out there and hustles like Hewitt in his prime, but you can't get away with that on Rebound Ace. That is what he needs to work on."
Even Safin, the only player to beat Federer at the Australian Open for the past three years, has accepted that he must make changes to beat him again. Safin was unlucky to run into Roddick in the third round but before that match, he spoke of a new aggression.
"There's not much you can do from the baseline, because from the baseline everyone is playing pretty well," Safin said. "There's a lot of guys, they can stay forever, so there is no fun for me also to run around with 1.95m at the age of 27. Looks a little bit ridiculous.
"(I need) to make my life a little bit easier and to use my height and my serve a little bit to put a little bit of pressure and to try to look for something at the net."
Safin didn't mention Federer by name but didn't have to.
Leo Levin is a former coach who helped develop the first computerised charting system for match statistics. He now works as a consultant for IMB, providing analysis to the broadcast partners at Grand Slam events. Throughout this tournament, Levin has noted that more players are coming to the net more often and using occasional serve-and-volley tactics to keep opponents off balance. He attributes this to Federer.
"What is heartening for me these two weeks here is you have seen so many other players starting to recognise what Federer has been doing and starting to do more of it themselves," Levin said. "When you see Roddick in at the net more and Safin into net more and guys like Gonzalez and Nadal, you realise they are starting to understand: no matter how good you are from the back of the court it is easier to win up close. If you use your weapons up the back to set up your shots at the net you don't have to hit 50-shot rallies to win. That makes the game much more interesting for everybody.
"Are we seeing lots of young players trying to emulate Federer? No. But all the players are trying to emulate parts of his game and starting to take advantage of what they have seen him do so well. That is a great thing for the sport. Sampras won 14 Grand Slam titles by serve and volleying, but where is the next generation of serve and volleyers coming up? As much as he was able to impact the game he didn't change the way it is played. Federer is starting to change the way the game is being played. He is that good."
After humiliating Roddick on Thursday night, Federer said it was premature to compare his achievements to those of the greatest players in history.
"There is plenty I need to do before I'm the best of all time," he said. "I am so far away from beating the weeks at No.1, slams, I am still five away. Jimmy Connors has 108 titles, I have 45. How can you put me in front of him in terms of titles? It is still far-fetched. If I go at the pace I'm going right now of course I will break all the records. But nobody has ever done that. That is why I say let's wait and see."
Federer is not one for false modesty but this time he sold himself short.
His greatest legacy will not depend on his final tally of Grand Slam titles, whether he stays at world No.1 for another year or five, or whether he wins the French Open title that eluded Sampras. If Federer doesn't hit a ball after tomorrow night's final, he has already made tennis a better sport. And so far, there are no signs of Federer growing weary of being so good.
"Guys are starting to get better, I think they are starting to close the gap," Stefanki said. "But he is not getting any worse. Roger works on his game and loves to be on the practice court, which is a negative for everyone else. He is not getting burned out at the moment. He is not doing a Wilander or a Borg or a Johnny Mac.
"He looks like he is enjoying himself and working as hard as ever at 25.
"Andy Murray says Federer will be long gone but I think that is a pipe-dream. He is going to be around for another five years so you had better get better, fitter, stronger physically and mentally and work on your game. Then it is game on."