After his 5th title win in Dubai only a few days ago, Roger commented on the change that has taken place in his game in the last six months - a stretch where he has won 33 of 35 matches, 5 of 7 tournaments entered - and he currently holds a 16-2 record on the season:
"I think the six weeks I took off after Davis Cup and the US Open was necessary if I wanted to play that much and be that successful. So that was a good decision. Obviously I'm still sad I didn't go Shanghai last year because it's such a wonderful tournament. In hindsight, maybe it was the right thing to do. I think I was just confident. I was playing aggressive. I was focused. I didn't doubt my ability. I'm defending much better than maybe I was in the middle of last year where I felt like I couldn't come out of tough defensive positions anymore. I was able to sort of turn it around. It started midway through the French Open and then through Wimbledon, even though I ended up losing. But I felt like my game was very good. Now just have to keep it up."
It is very evident that since the US Open finished, Roger has been a rejuvenated player. He is confident, he is aggressive, and most importantly, he is healthy. It's easy to judge quickly and say that confidence and added aggression alone is the big difference between the Federer of the past six months and the Federer for all of 2011 before that. But it is much more than that. He touched on it in the interviews after winning the Dubai title - he is defending much better than he was last year. That is the one big difference between now and then - his defensive abilities. In both Rotterdam and Dubai we saw Roger battle and fight to win points that surely looked as though he would lose. Whether it be a full-stretch backhand slice or an effortless forehand on the dead run, he found ways to keep himself in points long enough to turn them around.
Here's my theory: After the US Open, Roger, Paul Annacone, and Severin Luthi sat down and analyzed Roger's game over the past few months where he, for the majority of the time, struggled. They noticed that he was slower, not as sharp, and therefore not as confident in his own abilities. So in the six week break (with the exception of the Davis Cup tie), Federer trained. He trained hard. He worked on his endurance, his stamina, his reflexes, his conditioning - all valuable factors in being a solid defensive player. At the same time, the elongated break allowed him the opportunity to get fully healthy again - something I suspect he was not for the middle stretch of 2011. When the break ended, and Roger was ready to play his first tournament back, in Basel, he was prepared. He was confident. He knew that he had put the pieces together and was ready to have a grand finish to the year.
Now, that is just my speculation. I know how hard Roger trains off the court, and I just have the feeling that he dedicated a lot of time on improving the one deficiency in his game that was truly holding him back for achieving greatness - his defense, and, tied together with it, his movement.
Now, some of you might be wondering why defense is such a big part of what makes Federer successful. Do not underestimate its value. In today's baseline game, there are going to be many mid-to-long length rallies, and you must be prepared to fight out some points - and some of those points may come at times in the match that are crucially important to the outcome - as we saw in the Davydenko match in Rotterdam and the del Potro 2nd set tiebreak in Dubai. In both instances (2nd set at 3-3 0-15 in Rotterdam and 6-6 in the 2nd set tiebreak in Dubai), Roger won a grueling rally that pushed his physical limits. But he came out the winner in those rallies, and he went on to win those matches.
I believe that Federer's rejuvenated defensive abilities have led to this streak he has been on since the US Open. Confidence rises after winning a point you probably should have lost. It also gives you the belief that you can hang in rallies for 20 or 30 shots and know you will come out on the better side in the end. In Federer's game, when he defends well, he attacks well. He sets up points properly in only the masterful way he knows how. He does not get impatient and go for the high-risk shot before its there. It all stems from his knowledge that he can bring himself out of any difficult situation that is thrown his way.
When Roger struggles, it is because he goes for too much, and unforced errors start piling up. He tries to put away the point early because he is uncomfortable with a rally going too long where he might be exposed. Since the end of the US Open, with improved movement and defense, he no longer has that issue. He is able to be aggressive within his comfort zone - and if he gets into his comfort zone, there is really no stopping him. Right now, he is fit, he is healthy, and even for 30 years old, he moves better than nearly everyone in today's game.
With the way Roger plays his game, defense and movement are so important - more important than many people realize. If he is struggling physically, he will not be able to play to his fullest capabilities. We saw many times in 2010 and 2011 Roger being overpowered by bigger, stronger hitters. The reason for that is because he could not utilize his silky smooth movement and defense to full effect and track down the balls he would have normally gotten to. However, with his movement and defense clicking at highly elite levels, what have we seen in the past six months? 3 wins over Tsonga. 3 wins over del Potro. A very dominating performance against Berdych in Paris. All three men, at one point, were able to overpower Roger. Not anymore.
The Maestro, with his improved defense and movement, added with rejuvenated confidence and aggression, has had a physical and mental breakthrough that nobody would have thought possible 6 months ago after the US Open. Credit must be placed where credit is due, and full credit to Roger for getting back to his very best in an assertive effort to eliminate the issues that were hampering him in 2011.
With much pleasure,