Roger Federer is more popular than ever. As if his years of supreme success weren’t enough, he is now, just short of turning 36, enjoying a late-career resurgence. Having not won a Grand Slam title since 2012, Federer this year has won two. It’s a remarkable effort that has pleased millions, be they spectators or players.
At one level, to watch Federer is to witness supreme, unattainable genius. His eyes are alert, his feet nimble, the racquet a wand he waves seemingly at will, be it to strike anything from his lacerating forehand to his new, improved backhand.
Yet perhaps another way to understand Federer – and even learn from him, no matter what your age or skill level – is to focus not just on his output, but his input.
What does that mean?
Consider how Federer must have built his game as a child. Consider how willing he was to expose himself to the full spectrum of possibilities – spin, pace, height, depth, court position. My, what a vision of the game young Federer had.
But does it take a genius to hit a topspin backhand and a slice backhand in the same rally? The infamous sneak attack Federer tinkered with a couple of years ago – his interpretation of the classic chip-charge return – is worth emulating intermittently. And what’s wrong with the occasional drop shot approach? Or varying the spin and speed of a forehand?
Alas, many juniors and adults go about building their playing style in the exact opposite manner. While Federer is playing, they are working – engaged in narrowly-focused drills or practice routines that emphasize repetition and hitting each ball the same way, with the same pace, into the same part of the court. Certainly there is something to be gained from seeking mastery of consistency and, in time, power.
But does this kind of monochromatic instruction aid the quest to enjoy the game ala Federer? Exhibit A: Many clinics, the instructor leading cheering on the participants like some sort of aerobics instructor. “Hit it. Hit it,” come the words, the session instantly turning into some sort of hormonal showcase. What is learned here other than how to run and try and hit the ball as hard as possible? Where is the refinement, the craft, the technique, the experimentation?
Here is a drill likely not seen: Hit a topspin forehand crosscourt. Then a moonball high and down the middle. Now, slice a backhand. Here comes a short ball to the forehand. Crack it down the line, followed by an angle volley. Every third time that short ball comes, hit a drop shot. The study of this kind of variety will keep a player engaged in tennis. Just ask Federer. You won’t hit these shots as well as him, but instead of drearily working only on composition, now you will expose yourself to the game’s broad literature.