Does Federer Have a Problem With Big Power Hitters?

After Federer’s latest loss, I think it is a fair and important question to ask whether Federer has problems with big power hitters. Examples of big power hitters are Soderling, Del Potro and Berdych. These kind of players are tall, have big serves, flat ground strokes, two fisted backhands, and they move relatively well for big guys. They may also be what the future of tennis looks like. I don’t have any doubt that this is Federer’s most challenging opponent. We know Nadal is a challenging opponent for Federer, but Nadal is unique, and it is also a mental thing. In the 2009 Australian Open, Federer got overpowered by Berdych, and it was mostly heavy choking from Berdych that got Roger through that match. In the 2009 French Open, again Federer was being overpowered by Del Potro, but as Del Potro seemed to tire as the match wore on, his shots lost penetration.

Moving on to the US Open of 2009, Federer got overpowered once more by Del Potro, but this time he would not make the great escape. It has to be said though that Federer had his chances in the second set to virtually make a comeback for Del Potro impossible. In the Masters Cup later in the year Del Potro again got the better of Federer. And finally, yesterday Soderling overpowered Federer to end his semi-final streak at grand slams. Players like Soderling, Del Potro and Berdych can create massive power off the ground which Federer simply can’t match. It’s not that Roger does not hit the ball hard, it’s just that these players hit it even harder, and they hit it very flat as well. They also have two handed backhands which gives them more power than Roger’s one-hander. And while Roger has a great serve, it does not have the same pace as these players.

We saw how Soderling cranked up his serve in excess of 220 kph yesterday, while Roger serves at speeds around 200-210 kph on the first delivery. So when he faces these power players when they are on their game, he is just constantly under pressure. The thing that Roger has that these players do not have is a very solid defense, but I’m not sure his defense is what it used to be. When you get older you tend to lose a step, which could be the reason Roger is now starting to have problems with these players. Having said that, Marat Safin beat him in the Australian Open in 2005 with a similar game style. Facing these kind of players when they are playing well is a daunting prospect for anyone. They just keep you under such constant, intense pressure and give you no breathing space. They also have a bigger reach on the return, which makes it harder to get free points on the serve against them as well.

Unless you have a huge serve yourself(which Roger does not have), you have no way to get many cheap points against them. But I’m not gonna give this kind of player such a big advantage over Roger that easily. He does after all have very good records against these guys(12-1 vs Soderling/8-2 vs Berdych/6-2 vs Del Potro). I want to get back to yesterday’s match against Soderling. After Roger broke Soderling in the fourth set, he only had to hold serve, and things would basically be back on even terms. But the game he plays next is the key to the match I believe. In that service game, which he lost cheaply, he never once went for a drop shot. Even though he got short replies from Soderling off first serves and Soderling was far back in the court, he opted to go for a big ground stroke which landed in Soderling’s comfort zone.

I remember it very clearly because I knew it was a pivotal point in the match. If he played a half decent drop shot it would have been a winner or at least put Soderling in an awkward position, because Soderling was way behind the base line. These big guys still move pretty well to the sides, but they don’t like to move forward and pick up balls around their shoelaces. I have heard guys like Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill(who I respect a lot) that Soderling was simply to good and that there was nothing that Roger could do. I just find that hard to accept. How can that be the case against a guy who you have a 12-0 record against? If I had the footage of that game where he lost serve for the first time in the fourth set I would give it to you here, but it’s not on Youtube. It was the most braindead game I ever saw Roger play. And I think he lost serve to love.

Now I don’t know if this comes back to Roger being stubborn. It is either that or he is very stupid, which I find very hard to believe. Personally I think it’s a case of Roger being stubborn and not willing to accept that he can get overpowered from the base line. It’s the same thing he did against Nadal all those times he lost to him at the French. He just insists on slugging it out from the base line, while it is clearly a losing game. If he played sensible tennis when he was a break up in the fourth set and held serve, Soderling would have started to doubt again whether he would ever beat Roger. But when Roger dropped serve there it was virtually game over. As always I’m not trying to take anything away from Soderling and I like him. I do think that the power hitters are Roger’s most challenging opponents, but I have also pointed out to you that Roger is not helpless against these players and that the trend does not have to continue.

When he lost to Safin in 2005, to Del Potro in 2009, and Soderling in 2010, I think there were always a pivotal moment where Roger either lost concentration or made tactical mistakes. Roger on the other hand does not seem to notice any of this. He pretty much just blamed the conditions and moved on. I just counted, and Roger mentioned the word ‘conditions’ nine times in his post match presser and in eight of the fourteen questions he was asked. He also said the following:

Q. You had obviously, you know, a great turnaround in Australia and then the break. I’m just wondering if you ever felt you had your A clay game on this spring? Were there times when you felt you had it, or did you always feel like you were sort of searching for it throughout the spring?
ROGER FEDERER: I felt like I found my game when I arrived in Madrid, really. Felt like my game was good enough again. That’s why I was very happy with my play over there. I was very happy with my play here this week.
You can’t really practice with these kind of conditions. You just take them the way they come, you know. That’s why it’s disappointing.
And honestly, I don’t look too deep into why I lost today. For me, it’s very clear very quickly. That’s why I think I can move away from this rather fast and concentrate on the grass season coming up.
THE MODERATOR: French questions, please.

It is obvious he blames this loss on the conditions and doesn’t bother thinking any deeper into it. For me that borders on denial. You don’t just blame something like the weather and move on. The conditions were the same for both, and Roger could just as well have used it in his favor. I think he can’t accept that someone was stronger than him from the base line and is still in denial over it. Or else why did he not try something different when he started to fall behind? To be as good as Roger you have to almost think unrealistically and be in denial, but in this situation it is unfortunately working against him. I don’t think these power hitters are unbeatable for Roger, but he must get over his stubbornness or they will begin beating him on a more regular basis.

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  1. I notice with the power game, it is really noticeable now. Players like Roger are becoming rare, when most players are now hitting the ball like cannon balls. Still interesting to see how Roger’s career is going now with the new players. This may be the beginning of the end.


  2. Roger got to get down from his high horse and admit he has to change his game plan against big hitters. You are right he was close to losing against Berdych in AO, Delpo in FO and now Le Sod. Conditions are conditions but tactically he can’t outhit them from baseline. I wish someone in his camp bring him to his sense. He has to stop thinking the H2H record gives edge. People will improve other time. He now has to move to next level of his tennis- variations and tactics.


  3. Roger is by far the most varied player.No one can touch the beauty of his game.But in certain conditions a “beast” game will beat a “beauty” game.That´s why I don´t like Delpo´s or Sod´s game, but no one can´t say they are better players than Roger.
    Surely he is going to look deep into this loss, but he´s not going to say it in the press.


  4. One point I would like to make is that the kind of variation Federer has can tire a player out mentally. Someone like Nadal feeds his opponent the same ball over and over and his opponent can get used to it and get into a rhythm. I can be tiring physically, but if you’re a big hitter it’s not difficult to deal with those shots and so they have no problems.

    Federer can disorient his opponent with the variety of shots, weird slices and spins and forcing his opponent to move all around the court with chips, chops, drop shots, and volleys. Eventually his opponent gets exhausted mentally from having to deal with all those different kinds of shots and from the fact that’s it’s so unpredictable. I think it’s that, more than physical fatigue, that beat Del Potro last year at RG. He lost confidence from the baseline after having to run down so many slices and drop shots, and that affected his serve.

    In the QF at USO we saw this kind of stubbornness from Roger. During the first and second sets he was playing perfectly, giving Soderling all sorts of soft shots, slices, drop shots. Then during the third set he started relying more on his serve, playing from the baseline, and went away from his earlier game plan. He squeaked that one because Soderling’s groundstrokes weren’t consistent enough, but he was a point away from a fifth set.

    Intellectually he may know what he has to do, but executing on court for a whole match is another matter altogether. But I have faith that his champion’s spirit and desire to win is stronger than his pride.


  5. Sports aren´t now a matter of real force,sports are more tactical, even soccer.Roger has to look forward to his tactics against these players.

    I´m happy , every Roger´s loss a new era of players is coming (for the media), first Murray the new N1,now Sod, Berdych, the new dominance,and Roger has to retire(Stignor).But then Roger and Rafa the only ones who are always in the exclusive club.

    Sorry for my English but I´m italian.


  6. I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. Very nice.

    I think psychologically this is what happens: in his prime, he basically can dismantle any opponent the way he wishes… he can outserve them (Roddick’s aces are almost invariably fewer than Rog when they meet), outhit them off the baseline (Agassi – one of the best baseliners, Hewitt – the best retriever at that time), out-volley/out-slice them (Henman). Exception to the case was only Nadal, whom he can’t outhit off baseline on clay (on most occasions – he did once at 2006 RG, 1st set). Perhaps the ease he dismantled all those opponents in any way he wants to some degree built that overconfidence, bordering on arrogance… hence we get these braindead performances. Don’t mistake arrogance in gameplay w/ outward arrogance – bragging & bashing. Outwardly he’s humble & warm enough, but I suspect not when it comes to gameplans. Perhaps this is what caused him not to have a coach & the split w/ Tony Roche. Roche always wanted him to do more netplays, perhaps he had a problem w/ that.

    2008-9 slump perhaps brought some humility in this respect. Hence he came up w/ some great game plans against Nadal in Madrid 2009. But after lots of success in mid 2009-early 2010, I suspect that arrogance comes again. He just can’t handle the fact that he can’t beat any opponent any way he wished like in the past – hence the braindead games we saw recently. Hopefully this loss will teach him some humility again.

    In response to your previous post that I too quickly wrote him off… no, I didn’t write him off. It’s just his dominance is likely over, while I still rate him as the player who has the best chance of winning a slam at any place other than RG – but his chance is slimmer than the previous years.


  7. Pingback: Federer Loses to Berdych, Marks End of an Era | Ruans Federer Blog

  8. It’s not just Federer that has problems with these three big hitters. I think anyone would (hence the reason they are all in the top 10 of the world). On any given day, if any of these three guys are on fire, it’d be pretty tough to stop them (regardless if it’s Murray, Nadal Djokovic or even Federer playing). I don’t care who you are, but if Berdych is landing his hard shots even just %75 of the time and he’s taking good risks… You know it’s going to be pretty hard to beat him that day. Especially on fast courts. They are just so over-powering that it is almost humanly impossible to keep withstanding them shot after shot, blow after blow. Basically when a non-bigger hitter or controlled player plays one of these three guys, they are at their mercy as long as the big hitters are dictating play and serving with authority.

    I think you are only making an article saying Federer is having trouble only because he is so good. If he didn’t dominate like he used to, you would’ve just thought big hitters beating him isn’t such a big deal. For example, look, I wouldn’t say Rafa or Djokovic struggles any less against them. He has had his shares of beatings (some even worse than Federer’s regardless whether he was injured or not. Ex. US Open 2009 6-2 6-2 6-2) also and therefore, your points stated are quite obvious. And what did Rafa do? He simply just stated that he was injured. He was not “blaming” them. And Federer was doing the same thing. Everyone has their shares of injuries. Federer is not a God. It’s not like he’s invincible even if he wasn’t injured. So just be thankful we are witnessing one of the greatest players to ever play the game and stop fault finding. Otherwise, you are just the ignorant person who’s in denial.


    Ru-an Reply:

    I see your point but this is hardly new to me. Im not gonna read over my article again but i know i have said in my blog that these guys are just that good and that they would give anyone problems when they are playing well. Yet Rafa made short work of both Soderling and Berdych in the FO and Wimby finals while Roger lost to both of them in four sets.


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