© Getty Images

Roger Federer rode a hyper-aggressive return game to victory in Sunday's Cincinnati final.

Brain Game: Federer Reaps Rewards On Return

Discover the tactics that led to Roger Federer's title-clinching victory in the Cincinnati final

The return approach is making a dazzling return to prominence.

Roger Federer defeated Novak Djokovic 7-6(1), 6-3 in the final of the Western & Southern Open, with this rarely used tactic being the centerpiece of Federer’s audacious, swarming game plan.

Federer approached directly off a second serve 11 times for the match, winning seven, with some coming as ultra-aggressive half-volleys that required a global double-take. Just when you thought you had seen it all, Federer irreverently wrote a new chapter of what’s possible when returning serve.

Some return approaches were so extreme, it seemed like the ball had barely bounced in the service box before the Swiss star had charged forward to take it as early as possible on the rise. Federer said he recently practised the half-volley returns as a joke, but saw that it worked and tested it throughout the tournament with eye-raising success. The quicker courts in Cincinnati were the perfect place for Federer to reinvent himself once again.

Federer primarily used the tactic in the opening set, coming forward eight times, and winning five. A hidden benefit of the aggressive return tactic is that it completely robs the server of time to prepare for the first shot after the serve. There is no better time in tennis to rush a groundstroke than right after a serve, as there is a lot more organisation required of the hands and feet following a service motion to then hit a groundstroke.

For the tournament, including the first five Djokovic service games of the final, Federer had remarkably made contact with 14 return of serves standing within six feet of the service line. That’s simply unheard of. The ball had barely bounced and Federer was pouncing on it, rebounding it quickly back to Djokovic to avoid a baseline exchange, and showcase his net prowess.

Of the seven return approaches Federer won, he only had to hit a volley one time. Djokovic netted four passing shots, sailed one long, and also double faulted from the pressure of Federer’s forward movement. Of the four points Federer lost with the tactic, he only missed the return once, put a forehand volley in the net, was passed once, and was successfully lobbed – a spectacular, deft shot that Djokovic had to hit perfectly to win the point.

At 3-3 in the opening set, Federer really dialed in with the tactic, hitting a return approach four straight times, winning three of them. He didn’t break, but the pressure had just found a whole new level. When serving, Federer can typically control the flow of traffic in the point, and easily find his way to the net to finish. But with this new commitment to the return approach, he has effectively created a whole new way to get to the net in the much tougher scenario when the opponent is serving.

Short points make for long careers. Djokovic won 11 of the first 16 baseline points of the match, so immediately coming forward off a return replaced a losing percentage from the back of the court, with a winning one from the front.

The accumulated pressure of the eight return approaches in the opening set paid huge dividends at the beginning of the second set in the Serb’s opening service game. After serving an ace to lead 15/0, Djokovic had to hit four consecutive second serves - and double faulted on three of them - to hand Federer the only break in the entire match. Federer won 13 of the first 15 points of the second set, frustrating Djokovic as a stream of quick points flowed in his favor.

Federer’s marauding net play constantly unsettled the Serb, as the Swiss won 74 per cent (20/27) of all approach points coming forward, and 80 per cent (4/5) when serve-and-volleying. Federer did not have his serve broken once all tournament and did not face a break point in the final against the World No. 1.

With Federer leading 7-6, 4-1, his offensive court position was amazing - hitting 48 per cent of shots for the tournament to date standing inside the baseline and 52 per cent behind it. Only eight per cent of Federer’s shots for the entire week were hit standing more than two metres (6.5 feet) behind the baseline.

Federer has once again evolved to deliver the perfect counter to Djokovic’s suffocating baseline tactics that so successfully shrink the court. The net may seem old school, but it’s the new black at the pinnacle of our sport.

Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Read more at www.braingametennis.com.

More stories like this in: