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How has Federer been so successful in the modern era of tennis with such old school style of play that almost nobody uses now


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This is really two questions:

1- Why is Federer successful in the modern era of tennis? and 2- What style of play is “modern” and which is “old school”?

I’m going to answer the second question first, because most people don’t know the history of the sport.

#2 Which style of play is “modern” and which is “old school”?

Tennis players and fans should not look at the sport as developing in a completely linear fashion, with the next big thing necessary supplanting the last big thing. There is a continuous pendulum of innovation, inspiration and reaction. The sport has undergone constant evolution, as athletes have adapted to changes in balls, courts and racket and string technology. Sometimes, things come full circle.

The “modern” forehand

While the Western forehand is used by many players today, it’s not new.

The Western forehand was actually widely used during the first two decades of the 1900’s, and “Little Bill” Johnston was considered by many to have had the best forehand of all time. (Big Bill was Bill Tilden, another all-time great who took off six months to change from a continental to an Eastern backhand to compete with his compatriot). Johnston developed his tennis skills on the hard courts of San Francisco’s public parks. Here’s a description of it:

“He was also known for his western grip and the resulting topspin forehand drive, turning such a shot into one of the most effective in tennis history. He would take the ball shoulder height and was one of the first to leap off the ground on his follow-through.”

Wooden rackets were too heavy to allow players to flick their wrist and hit an effective shot with topspin. In addition, the weakness of the Western forehand was hitting low skidding balls. So tennis changed again.

From 1935–1955, the highest point of evolution in the sport was the Eastern forehand and backhand, as players could hit any kind of shot off either side. (famous Eastern grip players include Don Budge, who won the first Grand Slam in 1938, and Tony Trabert, who won the French, Wimbledon and the US Open in 1955).

The serve and volley

Court speeds were very fast, especially the indoor professional tour of the 1950s, where courts were often set up in arenas with wooden surfaces. Pancho Gonzalez was so dominant on the pro tour, the organizers changed the rules and prohibited the serve and volley. He won anyway, and the rules were changed back.

The next wave to dominate the Grand Slams (amateur tennis) was the Continental grip used by the Australians. With three of the four Slams being played on grass, players who could hit low, sliced backhands and volley well had a big advantage on the slick grass courts that feature so many bad bounces.

The one-handed backhand

The 1970s saw the phasing out of the Australians and the rise of a new wave of innovation that created one of the greatest eras of tennis history, with Borg, Connors, McEnroe and Lendl all dominating the sport with wildly different styles. With the revolution in racket and string technology in the 1980s, Lendl’s powerful Eastern grips again became the model for the latest version of the “modern” game.

Evert, Connors and Borg inspired a new generation kids who developed two handed backhands, but hard court and grass court tennis was still dominated by big servers with one handed backhands from 1985–1999 (Sampras, Edberg, Becker, Stich, Krajicek, Rafter). Even two of the best clay court players in the world who earned the #1 ranking had one handed backhands (Muster, and Kuerten).

The rise of the “modern” game

What changed was the way the ruling bodies of tennis slowed down the courts in the 2000’s. This put a premium on hitting big topspin ground strokes off both sides and attacking the serve return because it was so much harder to win cheap points off the serve or come into the net.

The most dominant players of the modern era besides Federer (Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka) use semi-western forehands. With slower courts, all these players stand further behind the baseline to hit serve returns and ground strokes, as their technique requires a little more time. (Note: Agassi was one of the few players with a semi-western forehand who could step in and hit everything on the rise.

Starting with the 6-hour final between Nadal and Djokovic in the finals at AO12, tennis matches had become longer and more uniform, with players engaging in longer and longer rallies from the baseline. With Federer aging, occasionally injured and not contending for the Slams during 2013–2014, I think the sport was getting a little boring. Over the last two years, there has been a trend to increase the court speeds a little in order to restore balance to the game, so players coming to the net have an equal chance to win on hard courts.

As a result, we have seen players like Mischa Zverev (QF AO17), and Gilles Muller (QF Wimbledon 17) have their best results in the Slams. And young attacking players like Nick Kyrgios and Denis Shopavalov are rising in the rankings and knocking off the best players in the world.

That is not to say that players should learn one-handed backhands and hit with Eastern grips. Every style has its advantages and disadvantages, and each player needs to determine what fits their physical, emotional and mental skill sets. Just understand that tennis will continue to evolve.

#1 Why is Federer successful in the modern era of tennis?

I’ll keep this answer really short, because so much has been written about him, including a number of articles I wrote that analyze his amazing rebirth in 2017.

But here are the features of Federer’s game that are similar to the dominant players of the 1990s:

1- Taking away time from his opponent. Hitting balls early, either by moving inside the baseline on short balls, or hitting balls on the rise is one of Federer’s greatest strengths. He may be the greatest player in history who can take an opponent’s hardest and deepest shots and redirect them for a winner off the half-volley. Eastern grips can create a naturally flat shot which is easier to time than the more extreme topspin grips.

2- Incredible variety and deception. Players with one-handed backhands set up the same way on every shot, while players with two-handed backhands prepare differently for their one-handed slice backhands. Federer uses his backhand to block back returns deep, chip them short and low, drive through them with pace, or add more topspin as needed.

3- Less stress on the body. The ability to attack off the serve, hit ground strokes on the rise, and come to the net put pressure on opponents and reduce the amount of energy used compared to long baseline rallies. In addition, the one-handed slice backhand and the squash style forehand slice allow players on defense to stretch for wide balls more easily than working to get in position to hit a topspin forehand or a two-handed backhand.

4- More power. While an Eastern player can choose to hit more topspin, the grips coincide most directly with the natural movements of the arm and hand that create flat shots. Try the experiment of hitting a ball with the palm of your hand over the net. Chances are you will hit through it flat in order to get the ball to go far enough to cross the next. Next, hold your forehand grip and stop your swing at the moment of contact. Now open your hand and take away the racket. Look at the position of your hand. If you use a semi-western or western grip, your hand will be slightly open, making it very difficult to hit the ball cleanly.

 

by Lon Shapiro, professional tennis coach