Roger's Renaissance: How Federer reclaimed the throne
Twelve months on from Roger Federer's remarkable winning return at the 2017 Australian Open, we look at the story behind the greatest comeback by the greatest male player in tennis...
Mackie McDonald – the world No 321 – fires down a second serve. It’s one of his better efforts, he thinks. But there is one problem: Roger Federer is waiting. The Swiss, at the start of his first foray into training for four months, undercuts the ball on his backhand side. It lands just over the net and the prodigious spin spits it back on to Federer's section of the court. Unbelievable. Unplayable.
The sail-shaped, seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel – a towering symbol of Dubai’s wealth – combines with palm trees to form the luxurious backdrop for tennis’s priceless asset. He is back after tearing his meniscus in a freak accident while bathing his twin daughters in February 2016, which eventually resulted in six months out of the game from July. “His hands are a joke”, says McDonald, who, out of respect for the privacy of the player he idolised as a youngster, has not spoken publicly about the late-2016 practice sessions until now.
The 22-year-old, who is no slouch himself and has subsequently risen to 176 in the world, trained with Federer after he and fellow American Ernesto Escobedo were flown in specially. “I got there early on a Monday morning. I remember [Roger] arrived in his Mercedes, he strolled over to the court with his bag over his shoulder – he’s a pretty cool guy, he walks tall, walks clean – and came out and asked: 'How are you? How was the flight?' He was warm, easy-going."
The trio, along with Federer’s coaching team, took part in sessions to ease him back into his rhythm ahead of his return to competitive action at the Australian Open in 2017. When looking back, McDonald repeatedly refers to Federer as a "sculpted athlete, a sculpted player" – even those who know the game and see his technique up close see it as a work of art, it seems. And yet, while focusing on his fitness, there were certain areas he was still chiselling away at, still perfecting. “He kind of mentioned that his health is such a big thing,” adds McDonald. “He needs to be careful with that. He’s got the weapons but it’s just the small, small details.”
Clearly, Federer’s incredible touch had not left him. The problem was, going into last year's Australian Open he hadn’t won a Grand Slam for four years. He’d been written off as early as his second-round defeat to world No 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon in 2013: John McEnroe was convinced he would never win another major.
Ever since, there had been talk of retirement. Yet two months after training with McDonald, Escobedo and later Lucas Pouille in Dubai, when returning from the first long-term injury and surgery of his career, Federer won the Australian Open. Later in the year he became the oldest Wimbledon champion in the modern era, aged 35, without dropping a set. They were his 18th and 19th major masterpieces, with the Melbourne victory arguably his best. But how did he do it? What ‘details’ did Federer change to arrest his decline and complete arguably the most thrilling comeback in tennis history? And is there a secret to his incredible longevity?
1. Forging a new weapon
It cannot be often that jet lag and earache form a breeding ground for innovation. But that, it seems, is what led Federer to add yet another attacking dimension to his game in 2015. It was a change which would prove essential to his return to the top of tennis.
The Swiss was struggling after a flight into Cincinnati, where he was practising on Centre Court that August ahead of the city’s Masters tournament, while Frenchman Benoit Paire, his hitting partner, had an ear problem. “It was a nice training session, very relaxed,” Paire tells Eurosport. “It was actually my first practice on site as I was just arriving.”
In fact, it was so laid back that Federer, a bit of a joker in practice (McDonald recalls him grunting deliberately loudly, hitting double-handed backhands and winding up his trainers), decided to mess about on the practice points by stepping right inside the baseline on a return, blocking the ball back and charging into the net. Fatigue was also a factor, with Federer wanting to keep the points short. The infamous SABR - Sneak Attack By Roger - was born. “It was a joke and, of course, it was very funny,” adds Paire. “[I was] very surprised as Roger was doing it just for fun at the beginning. We were playing points and he started his SABR. Then it was working so he kept doing it and then decided to do it in a match!”
Encouraged by one of his coaches, Severin Luthi, Federer used the tactic in the tournament and ended up beating Novak Djokovic in the final. If it sounds simple, it is not. Sneaking up on a 90mph serve is not the same as a traditional chip and charge; it is far harder than slicing a groundstroke or a serve from the back of the court and represents a huge risk. This increased difficulty is shown by the lack of other players consistently using their own version of the SABR. But if it is deployed, and it comes off, it can unsettle a player – even Djokovic – and put pressure on their delivery, forcing them to hit harder or closer to the lines.
" With Roger and his technique, there are no limitations"
There was also a backlash against the tactic, with some saying Federer should not be moving so much during his opponent's serve. One such critic was Djokovic’s coach at the time, Boris Becker, who called it "almost disrespectful". Looking back, the German has softened his stance, but admits it was a shock. “Roger’s SABR tactic came as a little bit of a surprise because he used it in practice three years ago,” Becker tells Eurosport. “Obviously the reason he can do it is because he is so talented with the racket. Most people want to do it, but technically they are limited. With Roger and his technique, there are no limitations. He felt that was just another addition to his arsenal of putting pressure on opponents early on.”
The irony is that Federer used his own experience of what he dislikes on the court and turned it to his advantage. After struggling against players who used chip and charge in the early part of his career - stars such as Tim Henman, who rushed Federer's elegant style, and Mario Ancic, who defeated him at Wimbledon in 2002 - he is now the one applying the pressure. The benefit is clear. SABR proved a highly effective weapon as Federer shocked the world of tennis to win at Melbourne Park 12 months ago.
So Federer has not just re-invented himself, taking the strengths of others and making them his own, but also re-imagined the boundaries of the sport he plays.
2. An 'unbelievable' mental transformation
The moment of victory: Roger Federer beats Rafael NadalGetty Images
Roger Federer has always had an ability – and, crucially, a willingness – to adapt his mentality. "He used to throw rackets and lose his focus – he was like a kid,” Corretja says of his early years on tour. "He used to make lots of jokes… but mentally he has made unbelievable improvements. He has managed to make himself much calmer and to control himself.”
The same player who assumed the disposition of an ice-cold winning machine after being an emotional wreck in his early years on the ATP Tour again managed to find a new approach – and a fresh source of motivation – during his six months out of the game up until January 2017. Specifically, Federer’s extrinsic motivations changed. This time, he felt compelled to give his four children – two twin boys and two twin girls – first-hand memories of watching their father play and, of course, win.
It is not the first switch in outlook Federer has had. Losing to Franco Squillari in Hamburg in 2001 was also a turning point. The young Federer smashed his racket under the umpire's chair following the 6-3 6-4 loss. It was a moment when he realised he must turn his behaviour around, before it took over his game. The switch worked as Federer reached the quarter-finals of his next two Grand Slams, the French Open and Wimbledon – a stage that he had not reached before. The death of one of his formative coaches, Peter Carter, in a tragic accident, also gave him a broader perspective.
" There was no reason for him to come back"
Forzoni thinks the change could have been a crucial factor in Federer's prolonged excellence. "It’s never easy changing from someone who loses control to someone in total control, and what tends to happen is when a performer goes through the process and ends up doing better, the process becomes easier and more rewarding – almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy," he adds. "You develop the willingness to change and use certain strategies to remind you to stay in control – eventually you see the benefits and the cycle continues."
Mirka Federer, wife of Switzerland's Roger Federer, stands with her children Charlene Riva, Myla Rose, Lenny and LeoGetty Images
But the way Federer subsequently motivated himself to come back after his six-month lay-off was arguably even more remarkable. So how did he return more focused than ever before? “I put it down to his love for the game,” Becker adds. “His return after six months out really shows how much Roger loves tennis. There was no reason for him to come back. He’s won every tournament a couple of times, multiple Grand Slams, so fundamentally he must love the sport so much to go through the trials and tribulations of the rehab to get to where he is now."
How Federer turned himself around – from a 'kid' to the man heralded as perhaps the most mentally strong and unwavering male player in history - provided a template he would then use to again transform himself with his career seemingly near an end.
"Everyone sees his talent because that is the most obvious thing, but Roger is an incredible competitor and fighter," says Mouratoglou. "He believes in himself more than any player and doesn’t give up – he is always able to raise his level in the big matches."
And then there is the pressure, or (relative) lack of it for Federer, after not winning a major for nearly five years and returning from a serious injury to lowered expectations. David Law, who was one of the first people to get to know the great Swiss since he first turned up on the tennis Tour 20 years ago, remembers his mood ahead of his comeback match at Melbourne last year, when he spoke with Federer and Ljubicic in the players' garden. "We were chatting about fatherhood, various players and various things," recalls the commentator and Tennis Podcast presenter. "I look at the [big] screen and I’m suddenly like ‘Jeez, you’re supposed to be on the court in about half an hour!’ This was his first match back after the six months out. Here he is, looking at the screen, with Angelique Kerber playing before him, and he goes to me: 'I suppose I better go – I’m on court after this!'”
Whereas other players tend to be found intensely staring into space with headphones on or meditating in the locker room, Federer was just overjoyed to be back in action. "He was as loose as a goose – he played with a freedom like we’ve never seen as a result," says Law.
A genuine love of the game, the desire to give his children memories to cherish, and a release from constant pressure seem to have given Federer ample drive to take his career to another level, despite his advancing years. But it is also his character and willingness to change his own mentality and approach that have enabled him to thrive.
|'I don't think his records will ever be broken'|
|"We are no longer surprised by what Roger Federer does," Boris Becker tells Eurosport. "When he first burst on to the scene, beating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon on Centre Court, I was actually commentating. Everyone said at the time that ‘this guy has everything’. The questions were: can he maintain this play? Is he going to be injury free? Can he keep the inspiration and the hunger for more success? 15 years later, all the questions are answered with a ‘YES!’. It’s difficult for a tennis player like me to explain how great his achievements are. I don’t think there is ever going to be another Roger Federer - he is very unique. I don’t think his records will ever be broken. I’m just in awe and can’t believe what he does - even now, at 36-years-old."|
3. The incredible mind behind the grind
Team Federer: Pierre Paganini, Severin Luthi and Ivan LjubicicImago
Big-name coaches have come and gone over the course of Federer’s storied career, but one crucial personality has remained. Pierre Paganini, the fitness guru in charge of his diet, physical training and schedule, has been credited as being the “incredible mind” behind the Swiss and his remarkable longevity.
“Paganini worked out when Roger was a teenager that if you want him to get fit there was no point in telling him ‘you’ve got to get to the gym’,” recalls Bowers. “He saw it as his own responsibility to make his fitness regime interesting and varied so that Roger would always be excited and up for it because it would stimulate his mind as well as his body.”
" For Roger, what’s unique is how much he enjoys it after all these years "
When players such as Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic describe how much they loathe training, it is not unreasonable to wonder how important it is to have a creative mind behind the grind. That is exactly what Paganini provides for the ceaselessly positive and upbeat Federer – and it could not be more valuable to his star pupil.
As Federer’s former coach, Paul Annacone, explains to Eurosport: “Paganini is just an incredible mind and experiential coach. They’ve been together now for close to 20 years and Roger has so much trust in him. Pierre creates so many practical applications in terms of his training that he can keep it fun and interesting; new and lively; creative. It’s perfectly well suited to how Roger plays tennis. For Roger, what’s unique is how much he enjoys it after all these years – the smiles, the laughs, the drills, the hard work.”
Players always talk of the Tour treadmill, with Andre Agassi perhaps the most famous example of a star pushed onto the circuit who often found summoning a desire to play tennis agonisingly difficult. But in stark contrast, Federer still loves the game – and perhaps even more crucially in the context of his long comeback, still loves his training. When he gave an incredibly rare glimpse into his methods on a Twitter live broadcast in December 2016, it was clear to see how unique and innovative his sessions are.
Paganini, a former decathlete who worked with a 14-year-old Federer when he arrived at the Swiss junior tennis centre, rarely travels with his team, but the impact he does have is immense. As one of the first fitness coaches to also demand autonomy over a player’s diet and tournament schedule, he immediately provided the structure and discipline that helped Federer grow quickly into a seasoned Tour professional. But much more than that, he is a huge factor in how the 36-year-old managed to stage his comeback in 2017.
Why does Federer still have such a love for the game despite having already achieved everything? Paganini’s innovative methods and creative thinking have a lot to do with it.
4. Addressing a fundamental flaw
Federer’s backhand had always been the weakest part of his game. Do not conflate the words ‘weakest’ and ‘weak’ in this instance: there is nothing feeble about this Federer shot. For many, his one-handed backhand is more of a brushstroke than a groundstroke, but in 2013 it was not painting the pictures he wanted – its free-flowing nature coming off second best against the double-fisted brutality of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal.
But following Federer's final-set victory over Nadal in Melbourne last year, the Spaniard noticed something was different, something had changed. "Roger did something unbelievable and I believe it is true that his backhand is great now,” admitted Nadal. “In my opinion his return is one of the biggest improvements.”
Nadal was not saying anything that hadn’t been remarked on before, but coming from his greatest ever rival it held incredible weight. Not only because Nadal experienced it first hand, but also because up until that point, Nadal was dominating the head to head 23-11.
He first beat Federer as a 17-year-old prodigy in 2004. As the years passed it became clear his game was ideally suited to pulling apart his older opponent on court. His left-handed cross-court forehand, developed on the dust of Mallorca where the prodigious bounce encourages more spin, is one of the deadliest weapons in the game. It is like kryptonite for his biggest rival, targeting his weakest shot, pushing him out of position and allowing him to dictate points. Similarly his serve naturally cuts away from right-handers and – on the second delivery in particular – can bounce above shoulder height.
Roger Federer of Switzerland serves during a practice session ahead of the 2018 Australian Open at Melbourne ParkGetty Images
Corretja recalls this being a deliberate strategy as he beat Federer in the French Open quarter-finals in 2001. He says: “I spoke with my dad after the match and he told me, ‘this guy plays well, but he makes lots of mistakes, especially with high balls to his backhand’ and I said, ‘well, yes, but that was the only place I could play against him’.”
Federer, who was always looking for ways to improve his backhand ever since he abandoned an experiment on a double-hander as a 12-year-old, had a fundamental flaw in his game. His ability to hit cleanly through the ball with one hand was, ironically, what hindered him - the freedom that led to constraints. The difficulty of maintaining power and control when confronted with a high bounce is tough enough, so Federer’s ability to pick up Grand Slams with such ease in his peak years speaks volumes of his incredible all-round ability. But the power and revolutions put on the ball by Nadal magnified the problem, and the Spaniard was edging ahead in their great rivalry.
Four years ago, Federer started to fix the flaw and the first step seemed remarkably simple...
5. Taming Nadal
Rafael Nadal looks on as Roger Federer holds the Australian Open trophy in 2017Getty Images
A change in racket – specifically to one with a bigger head to allow a larger sweetspot and more consistency with top spin – sounds smart and easy to do. But throwing away the tool that has carved out 17 Grand Slam titles is not simple. The best players spend thousands of hours practising with their rackets and are so highly attuned to them – the grip, the frame, the feel, the strings, the tension – that they notice any change, no matter how minor.
“I tried getting Pete Sampras to switch to a bigger racket, but I could never quite get that over the line because he was so comfortable with the one he was using," Annacone adds. “With Roger, he was very open to the conversations and the possibility of it and understood the pros and cons with it. He was very happy to do it, the issue was just when was the right time."
While he tried a larger racket head in the summer of 2013, he had to endure a number of injuries to his back so Annacone considered that his charge must only adopt the change from a position of strength, not vulnerability. “Even though he tried it, he wasn’t able to stay with it because of the injuries," explains Annacone. "He knew even after that trial period that it was something he was going to try again, it was just a case of when. We saw by 2017 just how comfortable he got with it in the end.”
It was not until 2014 that Federer switched permanently and his new coach Stefan Edberg, one of the premier serve-volleyers in history, helped him develop his aggression. Federer’s backhand began to be used more as an attacking force: a shot to win points, not just prolong them. He trusted himself to go into the net more, through drive volleys and SABR, to force the issue. It was an evolution, not revolution, that was fundamental to his future success. Djokovic and Murray – both six years younger – had emerged as the dominant forces, even ahead of Nadal, and were broadening the boundaries of endurance and athleticism, winning matches from the baseline with metronomic accuracy and absurd levels of counter-punching.
Federer needed less to mean more – shorter points to extend his success. That process began with Edberg, of course, but at the end of 2015 the pair stopped working together and the Swiss replaced his childhood idol with his friend Ljubicic. It seemed an odd choice: how could a man with a single Masters 1000 title to his name help the greatest male player, someone who has succeeded without any coach at all in the past? In short, he could refine and reinforce: sharpen the shots and give Federer the confidence that the changes would work. There were three things that perhaps qualified the Croat more than anyone else: he beat Federer three times in his early career and so knew his weaker areas along with those of his opponents; he had a powerful single-handed backhand capable of dictating points; he was (and is) a smart strategist.
Although we will possibly never how far the Ljubicic influence stretches – he does not give interviews and Federer has never really gone into the specifics of their relationship – the backhand return has improved noticeably, and the player has also admitted Ljubicic’s purpose is to improve the small details of his game, to “add those little extra per cent.” Bowers agrees. “I think what Federer looks for in a coach is a really good discussion the night before. He tells Roger things he already knows but needs reminding of – that’s the level at which the relationship works.”
So even during the Australian Open final against Nadal when he was 3-1 down in the deciding set, Federer piled into his backhand at almost every opportunity and, at times, seemed surgically attached to the baseline in his efforts to cut down Nadal’s angles and reaction time and attack the Spaniard. He did not waver from the gameplan. Clearly, he had not been idle during his enforced lay-off. While some thought he would never come back the same player, and the retirement calls had grown louder, Federer was putting in place his strategy for a comeback before developing a more ruthless return and a "great" backhand drive, as Nadal refers to it, on the practice court.
“Just watching the tennis that he was playing in Australia... he was driving the backhand more, he was staying on top of the [base]line,” added McDonald. “I forget he probably was working on those things in Dubai!”
Since that final-set flourish in Melbourne, Federer has not lost to Nadal in four matches. It is the ultimate backhanded compliment.
6. The real secret to longevity
Switzerland's Roger Federer hugs the trophy after winning the Men's singles final at the Australian Open tennis tournament in MelbourneReuters
What is the secret to achieving sustained success at the top level in tennis? One of the more under-appreciated aspects is a very simple one: staying fit. Very often, availability is the most important ability when it comes to separating the best players in the world, and Federer is a master of managing both his body and his schedule.
Barring his much-talked-about six-month break and the odd back strain, Federer has been remarkably healthy over the course of his career. Good fortune? Perhaps. But having turned pro in 1998, he must be credited with much more than just luck. To those who know, he has a game designed to last – and that is a big secret behind his seemingly endless brilliance.
“I think part of it is the fitness regime and the other is that he plays a form of tennis that doesn’t over-stress his body,” believes Bowers. “I do think that there is an element of the one-handed backhand that puts less pressure on the body and, in particular, the forehand with the exaggerated grip – it's a style of play that doesn’t put the body under as much stress as Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. Other players often hit the ball off the back foot with the modern rackets with a slight kink in the lower back and it doesn’t surprise me that so many players have lower back and hip problems."
Not only is Federer’s style of play aesthetically pleasing, but it also appears to have helped maintain his fitness over all these years. Put simply, he has a game built to last. "In the past, players were thinking, ‘if I stop for a few months, I will never make it back’ so they were refusing to stop and were getting injured," says Mouratoglou. "Roger was not afraid to think, ‘OK, I want to play a few more years, I’m not young and my body cannot afford to do the same as when I was 20-25, so let’s be smart and let’s play less, let’s get ready for the main events, the Grand Slams'. I think he showed that, by carefully building his schedule, he could be out for six months – even though he is not just anyone, he is not a normal player – and come back and win more than ever."
When Federer reflected on his astonishing ability to manage his body last year, saying he was "grateful" to have remained largely healthy throughout his career, it proved particularly striking given the spate of injuries suffered by his rivals. In fact, after the World Tour Finals in 2017, Federer noted that “back in the day, at 30, a lot of guys were retiring – you have to manage your schedule differently, but some guys just go all out for 15 years… until you sort of break down."
" That’s where he has been more clever than everyone else"
At 36 years old, he has already comfortably outlasted notable legends such as Sampras, who retired at 32, Bjorn Borg (26) and Becker (31) – to the extent where he has found a way to thrive despite the intense demands of the ATP Tour schedule. His decision to skip the French Open – played on his worst surface of clay, which is also, of course, the most gruelling – to focus on Wimbledon last year, was another masterstroke. He strolled to the title without conceding a set on the grass of SW19, the fast courts suiting his flatter groundstroke style even more. With Nadal, the winner of the other two majors in 2017, also coming back after a long lay-off and the Williams sisters contesting the women's final in Melbourne after playing relatively little tennis between them, another trend began to emerge, with Federer at the forefront.
This particular regeneration of Federer, the 2017 model, could pave the way for players to become surface specialists, particularly in the final years of their careers. As Becker explained to Eurosport, "Everything is around his scheduling, and that’s where he has been more clever than everyone else. He really knows which tournaments are important for him, the breaks in between. I think his wife, Mirka, plays a very important role, and the whole family set-up and the management – everything is in order for him to be the very best he can be. I think that’s the reason why, after all these years, he is still so successful."
Paganini also has a huge influence on this, as we have seen, but Federer’s remarkable longevity owes much to a refusal to be drawn into the myopia that contaminates other sports stars of today and how they treat their bodies.
7. Djoker in the pack?
The debate over the title of ‘The Greatest’ male player in history has pretty much been settled. Even taking into account the contrast in eras, Rod Laver’s barren years when he was banned from Grand Slams, and head-to-head records, Federer’s incredible 2017 seems to have finally set him apart as the finest. “It’s impossible for me not to say Roger [is the greatest of all time] because he plays the best that anyone has played tennis and he is still winning," says Mouratoglou.
Yet there is always a disclaimer, some small print to be checked. With Federer’s remarkable comeback, that footnote is the plight of his major rivals. Perhaps it is irrelevant and the stats tell the story: 19 Grand Slam titles, three more than Nadal, do not lie, especially when having to compete in the era of the Big Four. But last season Federer only had to face one of them – Nadal – in a major, with the time at the top table for the greatest four players in a generation appearing to evaporate rapidly.
Murray ran himself into the ground, a persistent hip injury being the reward for his incredible efforts in reaching the No 1 ranking at the end of 2016. It is now threatening to end his career, after he pulled out of both the US and Australian Opens. As for Nadal, the tendonitis in his knees is as much as a threat to his biggest ambitions as his biggest adversaries. Whether his health can withstand enough years to catch Federer’s Grand Slam haul is a huge question mark. His great rival – and friend – also seems to have cracked the Spaniard's code. Which leaves Djokovic. Since the World Tour Finals at the end of 2013, he leads the head to head with Federer 10-6. In majors it is 4-0. He fell away after achieving the career Slam at the French Open in 2016, while distractions off the court and changes to his coaching team have not helped. His elbow injury also continues to be a huge hurdle, but the talent, of course, is there.
“In the three years I worked with Novak, he was at the top of his game and he was able to beat Roger and Rafa on a pretty consistent level," adds Becker. "I’m sure when Novak comes back he’s going to play a stronger Roger Federer, so he needs to adapt his strategy and adapt his game.” It looks like Djokovic might be doing just that after he aped Federer with an extended break from the game to try and ensure a smooth comeback from injury and the appointment of a recently-retired player to his coaching team in Radek Stepanek. The Serb is arguably the most likely to usurp Federer and, as unlikely as it may be, with 12 Grand Slam titles could potentially catch the Swiss’ haul, if he returns to his previous level of domination and no-one emerges to challenge the top four players of the past decade.
So can anyone beat Federer at the Australian Open? He is the favourite with the pundits, the fans and the bookmakers. Possibly the biggest obstacle he will have to overcome is his own success. Last year, he was not expected to win. This year, he is – the pressure is back on. Yet if he comes through it, and takes his 20th major, equalling Djokovic’s title total in Melbourne in the process, surely the debate will finally be dead. In that instance, the final chapters of his career, where he remoulded his game post-2013 and was reborn as the man to beat once again, will probably be his finest achievement.
As Becker says: “[Federer] has been able to adapt to the opposition all the time. That’s why he’s been so good for so long.”
Roger: redefining, reinventing success.
- - -
Words: Kevin Coulson and Dan Quarrell
Artwork: Phil Galloway
Infographic: Chloe Livesey
- Chapter 11. Forging a new weapon
- Chapter 22. An 'unbelievable' mental transformation
- Chapter 33. The incredible mind behind the grind
- Chapter 44. Addressing a fundamental flaw
- Chapter 55. Taming Nadal
- Chapter 66. The real secret to longevity
- Chapter 77. Djoker in the pack?