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Brain Game: Federer's Forward Progress

Brain Game author Craig O’Shannessy breaks down the Western & Southern Open final between Roger Federer and David Ferrer.

Roger Federer has fully recommitted to the net and is once again dialing in greatness with his sixth Western & Southern Open title – and his 16th win in 16 career meetings with Spaniard David Ferrer.

Federer defeated Ferrer 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 in Sunday’s final with spectacular serving and constant approaching that is undeniably the perfect game style for the 33-year-old star. His strategy is going through a final evolutionary stage under new coach, Stefan Edberg.

Federer is the sport’s Renaissance man, with a renewal of life and vigour to keep points short and finish them at the net. He is running less, winning more, covering up weaknesses and applying pressure with just the threat of sneaking in. It not only feels right for Federer, but the numbers fully support the strategy.

Hunting the Short Ball Coming forward is something Federer no longer shows indecision with. In Cincinnati, Federer made contact with the ball 42 per cent of the time inside the baseline for the tournament, representing an overwhelming desire to come forward. When he was forced to trade blows from the back of the court, he is hugging the baseline as much as possible, striking 45 per cent of his total shots standing within two metres of the baseline. Again, that’s impressive, first-strike numbers.

He only hit 13 per cent of his shots further back than two metres, but a lot of these exhibit correct defensive movements, showing respect for his opponents’ depth. When he does move back, he is quick to return to the baseline to pressure with his court position and be ready to jump on anything short.

In the first set against Ferrer, Federer won 80 per cent (8/10) of all approach points, including those coming forward on his terms, behind drop shots, or when Ferrer pulled him in. He won 60 per cent (6/10) in a loose second set and then locked down to win 83 percent (5/6) in the final set. He won 73 percent (19/26) overall and those are the numbers that are driving Federer once again up the Emirates ATP Rankings.

Serving and Volleying Federer is reinforcing another dimension to his net play by stepping up his serve and volley game. He won 50% (8/16) of his serve and volley points, which may not seem fantastic, but it’s still going to deliver a higher winning percentage than staying at the back of the court grinding against Ferrer. Federer started brilliantly with the tactic in the opening set, winning 80% (4/5) but overused it in the second set when all of his game dropped a level and Ferrer rediscovered his own good form. Federer stubbornly served and volleyed four times at 0-3 in the second set, losing all those points. But the pressure it brings, and the indecision it creates in the returner’s mind on how to deal with the serve, is a perfect fit for the overall game plan.

Federer Serve Patterns Federer is once again showing confidence hitting his spots and it was a huge reason he ran away with the third set. Federer made 84 per cent of his first serves in the deciding set, winning 94 per cent (15/16). It was basically unplayable in the clutch. Federer hit six aces for the match, with four of them directed down the middle in the Deuce court. In the Deuce court, Federer attempted 18 out wide, made 12 and won 11. He was not as accurate down the middle, attempting 20, making 11 and winning seven. Federer served 17 first serves to Ferrer’s forehand, winning 13, and 21 first serves to the backhand, winning 16. 

Federer Returning Federer had a fast start to the match, a sloppy middle, and finally gained control again with Ferrer serving at 1-2, 15/30 in the third set. Federer ran around a second serve directed at his backhand and crushed a forehand winner down the line. He ran around another second serve on break point and again went down the line and this time followed it up with a deft drop shot for the break of serve.

Overall, Ferrer directed 76 percent first serves to Federer’s backhand, winning 25 of 39. Federer only won three of 12 first serve returns from the forehand wing. Federer won 10 of 22 points starting with a backhand return off a second serve but excelled winning 77 per cent (7/9) starting with a forehand return off Ferrer’s second serve.

Running Less Federer’s committed, forward-moving game style is also a bonus for his legs, especially in the coming weeks as he chases a sixth US Open hardcourt title. Federer only ran 1644 metres for the match with his prominent north-south strategy, while Ferrer ran 2081 metres, mainly going east-west. Federer dominated points won that lasted four shots or less (54 to 38), while losing the majority of points that lasted between five and nine shots (28 to 31), and points lasting longer than nine shots (3 to 8).

David Ferrer will not be disappointed with the loss, especially dominating the second set, but it will be Federer who takes the most away from Cincinnati - his first ATP World tour Masters 1000 title after losing four 1000 finals in a row.

The final chapters in the Swiss star’s remarkable career are very much still to be written.


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

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