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Federer unstrung « Getting at the truth

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Federer unstrung



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.

Spaghetti strings

Spaghetti strings

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.

The good old classic Federer forehand

The good old classic Federer forehand

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!

11 comments to Federer unstrung

  • KF Chan

    Part of it is also psychology.Federer has been magnificent for the last 5 years to 2007 and thus finds it difficult to change his winning game against new-generation counter-punchers like Nadal and Murray,who in my books,are superior versions of Michael Chang and Hewitt.As Uncle Toni puts it,Fed is without doubt the best player still but Nadal is best at winning.Maybe marriage might sort a bit of this out for Fed.

  • admin

    Good observation that Nadal and Murray are superior versions of Chang and Hewitt. Bill Tilden said, “Never change a winning game; always change a losing one.” Nadal gave a good example of changing his game at Indian Wells when he began to slice backhands to Murray’s forehand. Nadal is smart and knows when to change his game. Federer NEVER changes his game.

  • KF Chan

    Hi,never write-off the best player.This being such a strange year in all things,Fed might win the French and no other Grand Slam.Marriage can do strange things!

  • KF Chan

    While Nadal says the French Open surface is a completely different kettle of fish from Madrid’s,it looks like Marriage is settling Fed’s game like it did Agassi’s.Stranger things have happened,so the odds on Fed winning the French must have shortened considerably.
    The key was Fed trotted out his A Grade+ Serve in Madrid.If he can focus on this,his natural talent will make any contender,Nadal included,have mental doubts.It’ll be an interesting 2 weeks in Paris.

  • KF Chan: In addition to a better serve, Federer mixed up his game – played a bit of cat and mouse with Nadal – came to the net on short balls, and made some great drop shots. You can’t just stay on the baseline and trade shots with Nadal; you have to break up his rhythm, which is what Federer did. Years ago, I played Nicola Pietrangeli on clay. Pietrangeli was unbeatable that year on clay, and won both the Italian and French Opens. Pietrangeli was not a hard hitter, but kept you deep in back of the court. After losing 6-0 to him in the first set, I broke his first service game in the second by playing drop shots and lobs. I was too stupid to keep it up and went back to trying to beat Pietrangeli at his own game. He took the second set easily for a 6-0, 6-1 victory. My only consolation is that, in the next round, Pietrangeli beat Australia’s Neale Fraser by the same exact score – 6-0, 6-1. Fraser went on to win Wimbledon (once) and the US Open (twice).

  • KF Chan

    Wow,can’t quite remember Pietrangeli but it must have been fun.Well the Paris 2 weeks starts in a couple of days,here’s looking forward to a Fed-Nad Final.I just get the feeling that Nadal is,like Fed was a year ago,beginning to feel the heavy burden of both the No.1 ranking and his Clay exceptional record.Like the Stock Market,every trend must end but of course it pays to follow the trend too!

  • KF Chan

    Even tho Nadal was not in the Final,Fed played to perfection in that game and joined the Immortals.As I suspected,the heavy burden on Nadal proved just too much.But here’s hoping his knees recover fully for Wimbledon.Fed must be favorite for the grass and with no pressure too.Another fascinating tournamnet to look forward to.

  • Maybe, just maybe, the other players are on to Nadal – they may have cracked the code and hacked into his game to find a weakness.

  • Doug Watt

    Obviously, reports of Roger Federer’s impending demise are greatly exaggerated by the author of this piece.

    This piece contains a small grain of truth but many misunderstandings and oversimplifications as well. First of all, luxilon strings don’t intrinsically give you more spin, they translate more of the kinetic energy of the swing into the ball, simply because they don’t flex as much as natural gut. They actually give you both a little bit more pace AND more rotation. However, to suggest that Roger Federer’s forehand is “old” or “classic” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of stroke kinetics of the last 30 to 40 years, and the factors responsible for those changes.

    Although there is a great deal of hype about the polyester strings (most famously, luxilon, but now a whole host of imitators that are pretty much the same deal), unquestionably THE biggest change has been from racket technology. If you put the new strings in a 15+ ounce wooden racket, you wouldn’t have ANY approximation of what is going on in the pro tennis tour in terms of pace or spin. There is no way that anyone (even someone working out with weights) could approximate the racket head speed generated by thin, light weight composite technology rackets, if they were forced to play with the old wooden rackets. It’s simply not physically possible.

    Another variable that this author completely negates in his silly comments about Federer is how dramatically stroke kinetics have changed over the last 40 years, in the context of kids learning the game with lightweight rackets that allow them to take a huge swing at the ball and use every possible joint articulation, including an enormous amount of wrist and elbow pronation that would have simply been physically impossible with the enormous pendulum of an old wooden racket attached to your hand (those pronations were largely prohibited in tennis teaching circles in those days, and for good reason).

    Because of the enormous amount of wrist and elbow pronation involved in modern racket kinetics (tennis swings), and the movement towards Western grips (yes, even Federer uses a semi-Western grip), young players coming up have learned really a DIFFERENT GAME than the game of the 1960s. Because of those changes in racket technology which allowed a liberation of stroke kinetics, young players, even by the time they are juniors, are able to put enormous spin and pace on the ball. Polyester strings have only given an additional layer of pace and spin to this fundamental change. To suggest that luxilon string is responsible for the modern pro game, and that Federer is being left behind (“the old classic Federer forehand”?) because he uses a mixture of gut and polyester really suggests that somebody doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

    Obviously, Federer’s results in the last year argue that he simply has reasserted his dominance in the context of a dip in form and fitness from Nadal and his other primary rivals. He still generates significantly more racket head speed, particularly on the forehand, than anyone except Nadal, again because of his enormously complex stroke kinetics that allow him to use every joint to accelerate the racquet (wrist, elbow, shoulder, etc.). Those stroke kinetics would be impossible with the older rackets, and anyone else with a clue about the 21st century version of tennis would tell you the same thing.

    It’s a shame that Mr. Harding does not appear to appreciate understand these other issues and presents a radically oversimplified view of what is going on professional tennis. I’m posting this to give readers another point of view.

    • admin

      Doug: Thanks for the lengthy comment.

      I do appreciate and understand the issues of stroke dynamics. However, my post was only about the effect of slow courts, synthetic strings, and the new stringing techniques – and did not address the subject of stroke dynamics. Without new strings, racquet technology, and slower courts, tennis would be the same as it was in the 60s.

      As for “the old classic Federer forehand,” he uses a semi-western grip – a grip which has been around for decades.

      Back with the old wooden racquets, some players did use a western grip as did I. My first pro, Harvy Snodgrass (Google that one!) did nothing to change my grip. My next pro, Bob Harmon, made me use an eastern forehand as was the practice at the time. I wound up with a semi-eastern and a pretty good forehand. Harmon had a great serve, and passed that on to me.

      When I moved to Italy, the first match I saw was a singles match with Sergio Tacchini playing some unknown. Watching the game, I knew I could beat Tacchini easily – which showed I knew nothing about clay courts. In Naples, I lost 0-6, 1-6 to Pietrangeli by playing California tennis. (Hey, I had him down a break in the second set.) My only consolation was that Pietrangeli took out Neal Frazier by the same score in the next round. Finally, when I moved to Saudi Ariabia (cement courts), I gave up my old Jack Kramer wood racquets and went modern – still with the classic California stroke production, but with a bit more western on the forehand. I also developed a reverse flat serve which was very effective. Aside from that, my game remains pretty much in the dark ages, but ready for the 75 and over crowd should I decide.

      Some years back, I was working out with Alex Olmedo who was then the pro at the Beverly Hills Hotel (only their second pro since Harvy Snodgrass). Olmeda was then playing in some local tournaments and doing quite well with his “classic” game. I asked him how he handled the guys with all the topspin. “I take the ball early,” Olmedo answered.

      Like all Wimbledon winners, Olmedo was a genius when it came to tennis. I asked him how he managed to beat Laver in the Wimbledon finals. “Noticed he was a bit weak on high balls to his backhand at the net,” came back the answer. At the time, Olmedo was looking for a new tennis pro job. The Sultan of Brunei had purchased hotel, and was going to renovate, closing down the tennis courts. Olmedo told me his problem was that no one seemed to have heard of him – a Wimbledon winner!

      I do understand today’s stroke production, but found it a less interesting topic than the effect of technology on tennis.

      Going back to the past, when Ken Rosewall was on his first tour with Pancho Segura, Pancho told me that Rosewall was getting better every time he played. At the time, Pancho had a broken toe and was a bit slow following his serve to the net. The difference between winning and losing to Rosewall, said Pancho, was this: if Pancho could make it one inch over his service line when following his serve to net, he would beat Roswall; if Pancho couldn’t make it over the line, Rosewall would beat him.

      In New York City, I had the good luck to live in an apartment overlooking a tennis court where Don Budge played doubles. Although far from his prime, his topspin backhand was the best shot I have ever seen (talk about stroke production). Budge’s backhand on return of serve was like a serve coming back at the net rusher.

      Tennis in the past had more variety and required a greater set of skills. It was more interesting. Today, we watch two very similar guys (or girls – there is little difference), hammering away from the baseline.

  • KF Chan

    Thanks Mr.Watt,Mr.Harding for the information on String technology and stroke production.Yes there is controversy and as in all sports,this is what makes it fascinating.I would opine though that Technique and Superior Physical Conditioning(including the all-important after-game Recovery aspect)still ranks above Racquet or String technology at the Pro level.A touch of genius like Fed’s will not be amiss too.
    So how goes the French Open starting in a few hours time?It looks like Nadal’s to lose.But Fed is like millimeters behind.Like I said last year,he has to trot out his A Grade-Plus Serve and convert 50% more of his breakpoint chances especially vs Nadal(easier said than done we all know though!).2010 is proving a very unpredictable year in all thins(social,political,finance),even more so than 2009.On this tack,I would opine that each Grand Slam will be won by a different player and hence fulfilling the unpredictable tag.With Fed having won the Aus Open 2010,Nadal should edge the French in hopefully a classic with Fed in the Final.That would leave the chasing pack to look for the other 2 Slams later in the Year.