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How to return a 140 mph serve? Ask Fed

3/19/2012

Victoria Azarenka may be the new Novak Djokovic, but there's only one Roger Federer and I think hundreds of aspiring pro tennis players fall to their knees to give thanks for that every night.

Azarenka's triumph over Maria Sharapova/a> in the women's final at Indian Wells on Sunday was a blowout (Azarenka won 6-2, 6-3), the kind that ATP No. 1 Djokovic became famous for during his amazing run in the first half of last year. The WTA No. 1 handled Sharapova's gale-force groundstrokes with aplomb, and she exposed Sharpova's overreliance on the sheer power of her serve.

Sharapova held just three times in nine attempts, even though she hit only three double faults. It was a testament to Azarenka's return and ground game.

John Isner could be forgiven for relying even more heavily on his serve, and in the men's final against Federer, he held on all but two occasions. Still, Federer won it in straight sets -- and it wasn't because he held such a glaring advantage in the ground game.

Federer prevailed 7-6 (7), 6-3 because he handled Isner's serve when it really mattered. And he took such good care of his own serve that he saved the only three break points Isner saw all afternoon.

Federer's performance against the 6-foot-9 American, who bumped Djokovic from the tournament in the semifinals, was especially noteworthy because he's 30 years old. If that great former champ Pancho Gonzalez is to be believed, the first thing that goes when a player gets older is not the legs, it's the eyes. Gonzalez believed that the older you became, the harder it was to pick up the ball coming off an opponent's racket and to get a good jump on where it was headed.

Federer's success suggested that there's nothing wrong with his vision. Granted, Isner eschewed the obvious strategy that some coaches might have suggested: "Hit the biggest serve you can and hope for the best." He rarely approached that magic 140 mph mark and clearly believed that mixing it up and making good use of the kicker and the serve to the body would reap greater rewards than trying to nail aces to either corner of either box.

It wasn't a bad strategy, and it suggests that Isner accepts the reality that in tennis you need to be able to rally and to create and set up points if you want to win with any consistency. And truth be told, Isner showed real talent for playing out points without allowing them to become rallying contests in which he's almost certainly destined to be outmaneuvered.

But the approach put Isner at risk because it enhanced Federer's chance of getting his racket on more serves. And one of the all-time Grand Slam champion's least-heralded attributes is his ability to get the stick to meet the ball. Against a superior rallier like a Nadal or Djokovic, just getting the ball back isn't good enough. But against Isner, it was.

The most critical game of the match, and the one that sealed Isner's fate, was the seventh game of the second set, with Isner serving at 3-all. At 15-all, Federer made two returns and was in sufficient control to hit semi-chip shots that lured Isner to the net. Federer made both passing shots to put Isner in a 15-40 hole.

Isner's next serve was a clever one, intended to jam Federer, but the receiver sidestepped and blocked the ball back with his backhand. Isner again had to come to the net, and this time a passing shot handcuffed Isner and forced a backhand error. It was the only break Federer needed, even though he broke Isner again to win the match.

Federer's eyes played an enormous role in this match. He saw the ball well and saw it early, even when it was melting off Isner's racket in a blur. I'm not saying Gonzalez was wrong about the toll of age, just that if the eyes are the first to go, Federer doesn't have anything to worry about yet.