The slowing of the game of tennis explains why Roger Federer is on the slippery slope downhill.
Federer’s game, is much like the hard hitting tennis of the past, modeled on his idol, Sampras. Federer does use topspin, but not to the extreme degree of that of his nemesis, Nadal.
Here’s why: Slow is in.
The Australian Open this past February introduced a slower hard court surface.
Wimbledon has been using different grass and at different lengths to slow the grass game down. Slick carpets have been converted to have less speed.
The trend to slower courts is part of the reason why European players, most of whom learned on super-slow red clay courts, are now at the top of the game.
Of the two variables, strings are a much bigger factor than slower courts. This is because, both players are on the same court, but they don’t have to use the same strings.
Tennis is now in the era of “dead strings,” which are akin to the illegal “spaghetti strings” used briefly and very effectively in the 70s.
At the 1977 U.S. Open, using spaghetti strings, Michael Fishbach, ranked 200th by the Association of Tennis Professionals, upset 16th-seeded Stan Smith. This sent the tennis establishment into an uproar. This new spaghetti double-stringing system was producing huge upsets, negating natural talent and years of practice. The racket was turning predictable shots into wild, unreturnable ones.
Spaghetti strings grabbed the ball and held it on the racquet longer, putting top-caliber spin on balls hit with an average topspin stroke.
Where traditional stringing used a single set of main strings interwoven with a single set of cross strings, all on one plane; spaghetti strings had three planes of non-intersecting strings, with a plastic protective coating that made them look like uncooked spaghetti – hence the term “spaghetti strings.”
No sooner had spaghetti strings shown their stuff, than they were banned in October 1977.
Now we have a new string – a string that can give anyone a chance to play like Nadal. That string is Luxilon, the so-called “dead” string!
Luxilon strings are so effective that it is one of the few companies – and maybe the only company in professional tennis that does not pay top players who use its products. It does provide free product to a number of players, but the majority of top players do, in fact, purchase Luxilon strings.
With dead strings, a player can swing loose and hard with more dip, whip and power. The ball jumps dramatically-unbelievably so. A ball that looks long, suddenly dips and drops like a stone inside the court.
Nadal doesn’t yet use Luxilon, but uses Babolat stings which have much of the same “dead” effect. Nadal’s topspin has been laser measured at 3,200 rpm.
Huge topspin is the main reason why Nadal’s shots tend to land short of the baseline and rarely go out. Moreover, Nadal’s shots drop suddenly and do with an uncharacteristically high bounce. This forces his opponent into returning an “above shoulder height” ball – a shot where they have less power and control.
U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe has said of Nadal, “His normal safe forehand is the toughest shot in the world.”
In the 1990s, the best that Agassi could do with gut was 1,900 rpm.
Current world No. 2 (and sinking) Roger Federer, whose forehand is considered among the game’s best (but deteriorating), generates 2,700 rpm.
Federer, like the players of old, likes to hit his ground strokes early, while the ball is still on the rise. This allows him to take the ball closer to the net and reduces the reaction time of his opponents. They, in turn, are limited in how they can return such a stroke which typically produces a weak return that has allowed Federer to pounce with the angled winners that are a trademark of his game.
Federer, however, is being forced to change his game. He started out with gut strings, but now uses Luxilon Alu Power Rough crosses (across the racquet face) and Wilson Natural Gut mains (the longer strings).
Many pros use the same Luxilon/gut combination but with Luxilon mains. This is far more effective in catching the ball.
Hopefully for him, Federer will catch on and realize that using Luxilon on the crosses does very little to catch the ball. He should use it on the mains. (Federer might also try mixing up his game now and then, which Nadal does beautifully.)
Federer has had to adapt mid-career to the technology of these new strings. He no longer plays as aggressively as at the beginning of his career.
“I realized things were slowing down,” Federer said. “The new string generation came along where returning and passing shots were made easier. It was harder to attack in some ways. I think that’s been a big change because of the strings, the way we’re able to cover the court now and hit through the ball and still keep the ball in play. Before we were all playing with natural gut, and by having that it was just hard to control the ball.”
Nadal, five years younger than Federer, has had the advantage of developing a complete game based on dead strings. We’re witnessing the first great player to use dead strings his entire pro career.
He very likely won’t be the last!