- Kamakshi Tandon
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Roger Federer looked a lot like the Roger of old at Wimbledon this year, and it wasn't just about how he played. It was about the way he played.
A year ago, a lackluster Federer was sent out in straight sets by Ukraine's Sergiy Stakhovsky, who served and volleyed his way to a big upset of the seven-time champion. Stakhovsky came into net behind 67 percent of his deliveries or two out of every three points, including every one of his 109 first serves during the match.
This year, it was Federer who was coming in noticeably often. According to official Wimbledon statistics, he was serving and volleying every four or five points. That's not quite as much as Stakhovsky, but it was nearly double Federer's rate a year before and higher than all but a handful of players during the tournament.
Although there a few players who served and volleyed the majority of the time, like Dustin Brown at 80 percent or Stakhovsky at about 60 percent, most of the men's draw didn't even get to double figures. Stan Wawrinka was the only top player coming in as often as Federer, serving and volleying a percent or two more than his compatriot.
The change wasn't just Federer taking a cue from his conqueror, although Stakhovsky's performance may have been a demonstration of how effective those old-fashioned charges to the net can be on the grass. The 32-year-old was also taking a cue from his younger self.
"I remember still how I played in 2001 when I made it to the quarters here," Federer recalled during Wimbledon. "I serve and volleyed 80 percent on the first serve, 30 to 50 percent on the second serve? It was just normal.
"I even did some in 2003 when I won first here. Then, every year I started doing less because the game started changing on the tour, really."
Federer came in behind a third of his deliveries during his 2003 victory. But playing conditions were changing, with the courts playing slower after a 2002 switch in the grass, and the baseline game becoming even more dominant on tour.
"I think [top] guys return a bit better these days. I think it might be a touch slower as well," said Federer, adding there was also an element of habit. "Because those guys are looking for the rallies, you tend to just also do it because it's comfortable; it's nice to stay back there, serve, wait, hit the big forehand."
But now, players are starting to find their way back toward the net as a way to win increasingly lengthy rallies. Classic serving-and-volleying, where the player looks to get to the net right away, is still an exception these days. But points are being finished at net more often. Federer is among those coming in more, something he had been doing even in the previous one or two years but especially this season.
In his first six matches at Wimbledon, Federer was winning 72 percent of net points and even won 66 percent against Novak Djokovic, who is among the best, if not the best on tour at countering an incoming opponent.
Two factors are driving Federer's forward shift. One is Stefan Edberg, whom Federer has brought on as coach this season. The Swede is widely seen as one of the greatest net players of all time, and brings a lot of old-fashioned volleying know-how to Federer's team as well as psychological encouragement.
Federer agrees that Edberg has influenced how much he serves and volleys or comes in. "Or maybe just reinforce the concept that it is possible, that I can actually do it," said Federer.
The second adjustment is his serving. "I think also the racket is helping me to serve overall more powerful, higher percentage," said Federer.
Although Edberg does not see serving-and-volleying as a singular way of winning a match these days, he has said he would like Federer to increase the variety in his game.
As for Federer, he describes it as "that little extra piece," which could help him as he looks to stay competitive at the top of the game.
But despite enjoying success with it on grass, how much Federer will do it on hard courts remains to be seen. Even on grass, the most favorable surface for serving-and-volleying, he has talked about how much commitment it requires.
"I think there's a way to do it here. You need to be able to serve well, move well at net, anticipate well, come in on the right shots in the right way. Many things need to work well, but it definitely is still worth it," he said.
It also means staying with the move even when watching balls go by for winners.
"The overall picture you have to be able to see, that it's worth it," Federer said. "It's putting the pressure on the opponent knowing that any short ball will be attacked, there will be not too much rhythm out there unless you decide you want it as a serve-and-volley player. And being able to do it when the score is not in your favor. It's easy to serve and volley at 40-0, but can you do it at 15-30?"
On hard courts, as on grass, Federer will be looking at how effectively he can play the style, saying at Wimbledon, "I have to re-adjust and see against who does it work and how do you do it."
Either way, however, he only intends to do it so often. "I didn't serve and volley all the time. That's not how I intend to be playing," he said. "But mixing it up a little bit could be the way to go."
The old as something new. A bit like Federer himself.
Out with the new, in with the old. That's how Roger Federer, along with his rejuvenated serve-and-volley game, almost won Wimbledon, writes Kamakshi Tandon.