Roger Federer, by his own admission, thinks grass to him is what clay is to Rafael Nadal. “Grass highlights my strengths and hides my weaknesses,” he said ahead of the Gerry Weber tournament in Halle, which he went on to win for a record 10th time. “I can play how I want and on my terms. It’s maybe how Nadal feels on the clay. He can decide to return from the back, to return from in; I can do the same on the grass. I can chip it, I can come over, I can serve and volley, I can stay back. That gives you options to win. Different tactics you can use against different players. And that gives you maybe more margins you need to stay out of trouble.”
Such confidence isn’t misplaced. He is, after all, an eight-time Wimbledon champion. Nineteen of his 102 career ATP World Tour titles have come on grass; that is almost one fifth of his titles on a surface that’s roughly one tenth of the season. When he won Wimbledon in 2017, at 35 years and 11 months, he was its oldest men’s champion. His three Majors after turning 35 (including the 2017 and 2018 Australian Open titles) are a record matched only by the legendary Ken Rosewall. If he manages a fourth two weeks from now, Federer’s beautifully written epilogue might well be as good as the book.
To the rational mind, Wimbledon 2019 may be his last realistic shot at a Major. He is nearly 38. Rosewall, when he claimed the 1972 Australian Open to become the oldest Slam winner (37 years and two months), was almost a year younger. Also, that was against a depleted field, with the game hurt by the professional-amateur split. The Aussie did make the final at Wimbledon and US Open in 1974, but both ended in heavy defeats to Jimmy Connors.
Federer comes to Wimbledon in tournament-winning form. His last four non-clay events have fetched three titles (Dubai, Miami, Halle) and one runner-up trophy (Indian Wells). He made an interesting decision to play on clay for the first time in three years. Though he didn’t reach a final, the points-cushion (1,080) perhaps allows him to play pressure-free. “I was really positive about my clay-court swing,” said the Swiss. “I lost against the best clay-court player ever [at Roland Garros]. I tried everything I had in unbelievably windy conditions. I loved it actually. And I left [Paris] very positive.”
Tennis on grass
To be sure, Federer isn’t remotely the player who beat Pete Sampras at his own game in 2001. When he won his first Wimbledon in 2003, he was predominantly a net-rusher. The Federer of today is more a baseline-hugger, with serve-and-volley thrown in as a surprise tactic. Yet, what he plays is distinctly grass-court tennis. No one employs the backhand slice to such devastating effect. On grass, the ball bounces at a lower angle after hitting the turf. The Federer slice lowers the angle further and is a rhythm-breaker, as the ball appears to zip through. By forcing the opponent to act faster, it exaggerates the speed of the court, which, in turn, plays on the mind.
Federer’s game, like Sampras’, flows from his serve. There is a case to be made that those who protect their serves well find success on grass. Over the last year, Federer has won close to 77% of his service points on grass and gone on to win 90% of the matches. The numbers for those with a ‘big game’ — a cannonball serve followed by a crushing ground-stroke — are interesting. Milos Raonic (Wimbledon finalist 2016), Kevin Anderson (finalist 2018), John Isner (semifinalist 2018) and Matteo Berrettini (eight straight victories on grass this month) win a high % of service points on grass. This is accompanied by a high match-win %. On hard-courts, the % of points won on serve drops; the match-win % falls even further.