Old Man Tennis
July 30, 2012 in Tennis
When Roger Federer beat Novak Djokovic at the Wimbledon semi-finals this year, many people referred to his style of play as “old-man tennis” in a mixture of flattery and criticism. Some lauded him for playing to his strengths, while others argued (rather outrageously) that if this was the style he was going to employ just to win a couple more Grand Slams, that perhaps he ought to just retire. So in an effort to decide for ourselves whether Federer’s old man tennis strategy ought to stay or go, let’s take a closer look at what this brand of tennis is all about.
As the name suggests, old-man tennis is usually played by older players who have lost a bit of strength and pace, both in their groundstrokes and in their movement, and therefore employ slices, drop-shots and go to the net as often as possible. The main objective for playing this brand of tennis is to keep points short, so as not to over exert yourself, and play “smart” tennis. Federer did a lot of this against Djokovic. He raced through the first set by serving well, attacking the first short ball that came his way, and keeping the points short. He played slices off the backhand wing more often than top-spin, and he used drop shots to change the pace of the rallies. He also came to the net as often as possible, though not early in the match, and not always with great success. Neverthless, the strategy on the whole worked like a charm, particularly because it was being used on grass, a surface that gives value to slices, rewards aggressive, first-strike tennis, and affords a player the luxury of keeping points short if he so wishes.
So that is old-man tennis in short, the style of tennis Federer played, much to the criticism of many. Now it is a bit of a stretch to argue that such a style of play doesn’t deserve to win majors, because if old-man tennis were so easy and effective to play, then everyone would be doing it. But Federer won the match playing in this manner, because he used it well, and because he has played long enough to accumulate both the skills and the wisdom required to employ such a strategy. Two days later, the same strategy would win him his seventh wimbledon against a charged up Andy Murray. The old man, a few weeks short of turning 31, would reclaim his spot at number one on the tennis hierarchy, and announce to the world that he has returned to where he belongs. For two years, he hadn’t won a major and hadn’t looked at his best. But perhaps what Federer realized in that period is that he can no longer play the kind of tennis he used to, at least not throughout a match. His slowing reflexes and ageing body have taught him a few useful tricks, not least of them the art of winning smartly. So why shouldn’t he use it, especially if it wins him matches, even majors? Say what you want about old-man tennis, but you can’t argue if it keeps winning the silverware.
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