The Tennis Brain of Roger Federer
What will you miss most about Roger Federer—as a player?
In my recent career retrospective, “Roger Federer: A Champion’s Champion,” one section is titled “Tennis Brain.” It explains why Roger was clearly one of the most tactically intelligent players in tennis history. His shot selection was generally smart, sometimes very clever, and occasionally innovatively so, such as with his SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger).
Roger also perceptively analyzed the games of other players as well as trends in playing styles. In my instruction book, "The Fein Points of Tennis: Technique and Tactics to Unleash Your Talent," I often reference the Swiss maestro to describe and analyze technique and tactics.
Like “Big Bill” Tilden 100 years ago, Federer left posterity timeless maxims we should ponder. For example, he said, “I do believe as a tennis player, it’s constant problem-solving.”
What exactly does that mean?
For starters, during changeovers, think of what’s going right and wrong with your own game. For instance, if your first serve percentage is lower than usual, and that’s caused by serves going into the net, you should change your service toss. The problem could be a toss that is too low or a toss that is too far in front of you. Or, the toss could be fine, but you’re letting the ball drop below the ideal contact point before you hit it. Perhaps you simply need more topspin for greater net clearance. Wind could also affect the power and trajectory of your serve. If you’re serving into a strong wind, aim higher than usual to compensate for that in order to create a higher trajectory.
Keep in mind that smart opponents also problem-solve throughout matches. Let’s say you’re hitting strong approach shots and knocking off lots of volleys. Your opponent realizes his passing shots aren’t working often enough and starts lofting deep lobs.
What will you do to counteract his new tactic?
You could come to net less often, but that would take away what had been a winning tactic, and you might be less effective in baseline exchanges. You could probe and find out if he lobs much better or more frequently on his forehand or his backhand side. You could change the pace or spin on your approach shot. You could position yourself slightly farther from the net for your first volley to better reach his lobs. You could keep him off balance and guessing by occasionally mixing in drop shots and sharp angles when you had been hitting approach shots.
Some coaches and teaching pros preach that you should focus chiefly on your own game, while others recommend that you focus more on your opponent’s game. Both can be right, so be flexible in your thinking about technical and tactical changes during matches.
Tilden’s most famous maxim is: “Never change a winning game. Always change a losing game.”
Federer well appreciated the second half of that maxim. If you miss Roger and decide to watch some of his greatest matches on YouTube, you can see how the versatile superstar smartly problem-solved when the going got tough.