Sunday, June 07, 2009

Sports: Skill vs. Power

Roger Federer won the French Open today, defeating Robin Soderling in straight sets: 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4. Federer's status as a living tennis legend will understandably get a lot of press today, but I think the more interesting story is Federer's playing style and the subtle changes he has made to his game over the years.

First, some background: Tennis is one of the few televised sports where it's mano-a-mano, you versus one other person - no teammates to lean on when times get tough. There's no timeouts, no running to your cornerman between rounds, no coaching allowed at all. There's also no time limit, no clock to save you when your level starts to drop.

This is the kind of pressure Roger Federer has lived with for the past five years, along with the burden of being the overwhelming favorite in almost every match. Father Time has also been catching up to him, and nowadays he faces off against men five or six years his junior. Predictably, the 2009 French Open was Federer's most difficult tourney yet - he played a couple of tight matches versus Jose Acasuso and Paul-Henri Mathieu, and two five set thrillers versus Tommy Haas and Juan Martin del Potro. There were plenty of times here when it seemed like Federer was outgunnned, muscled around by younger guys with huge forehands or big serves.

In my opinion, what saved Federer these past two weeks is that tennis is a game of skill, not just power. When he was younger, Federer could stay in rallies and reliably hit clean-looking inside-out forehands, or down-the-line backhands, even against the likes of Marat Safin:

But with illness and injury compromising his once immaculate hand-eye coordination, Federer has changed his game subtly. He now regularly hits drop shots out of both his forehand and backhand, forcing today's power baseliners forward into the net:

Tennis strategy is predicated on making someone hit balls under pressure (read: on the move). Federer has found the one weakness in today's pros - an unfamiliarity with approaching the net. Clay court grinders used to moving left to right in long baseline wars seem flummoxed by drop shots and touch volleys. As long as Federer has these kinds of shots, he'll always have the upper hand in rallies, no matter how powerful the guy on the other side is.

A lot of sports writers have been talking about how Roger seemed "fated" to win this year's French Open, but it's not luck - it's skill.


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