Federer’s Fatal Flaw

Federer return stance. Edited at Picmonkey..

To read in Spanish, click here.

Not again. Unlike last year when, at the same scenery, Roger Federer saved five match points on Opening Day before cruising all the way to the title, the Swiss genius could not escape from the murderer’s row this time. Spanish clay court specialist Albert Ramos upset him 7–6 2–6 6–3 in the first round of the Shanghai Masters 1000. The first set, in which Federer squandered the only two break points, was a tossup. The current world number two stepped up his game in the second but laid an egg in the third, winning just 27% of his return points and allowing Ramos to break in his last service turn. Federer’s final numbers when receiving weren’t pretty (35% return points won, 2/6 break points won). Had he taken advantage of one break point in the first and he would have advanced quite handily. Does the bad timing sound familiar?

This shocking defeat along with Federer’s woeful 4 for 23 evening against Novak Djokovic in New York over a month ago have prompted me to analyze his performance on break points against his main rivals along his career. Let’s put the numbers into context.

Is a 4 for 23 clip that bad? On the optimistic hand, such a high number of break point chances indicates that the player put tons of pressure when returning for the whole match. The odds of creating those 23 chances in one or two games combined are minimal. On the pessimistic hand, a 4 for 23 equals a 17.4% of success rate. It took Federer almost six break points to capitalize his average break. Plain awful.

Not every wasted break point induces the same pain. If you’re able to cluster three points together, up 0–40, you can get away with losing two chances before nailing the third one. A below-average 33% conversion rate in this game, but mission accomplished. If you take care of business with your serve, as Federer is doing this year (career-high percentage of service points won in a year), you can sleep through the return games like Pistol Pete. However, if you consistently achieve the three-point benchmark but fail at converting 30–40s and advantages, it undermines your mental toughness and the effectiveness of your racket going forward will falter. That was precisely what occurred to Federer in his loss to Nole in Flushing Meadows.

Federer won an outstanding 38.7% of his return points in that match. The US Open final was the 16th time the Swiss faced the Serbian in a final, dropping the head-to-head to a 6–10 favoring the latter. Among the other finals they have played, Federer only topped that figure four times. If we take a look at the Grand Slam stats between these two (Djokovic leads 8–6 their Grand Slam rivalry), Federer only won a higher percentage of return points in two precedents: a straight sets win at the Australian Open 2007 last 16, when Djokovic was still a teenager ranked outside the top ten; and at the Roland Garros 2011 semifinals, arguably Federer’s best clay match ever. Therefore, we can conclude that Federer put up winning overall numbers from the receiving end, but was weak in match-altering situations.

Now I shall proceed to thoroughly scrutinize how Federer has fared when returning versus the following group of fourteen players (alphabetically listed): Andre Agassi, Tomas Berdych, James Blake, Juan Martin Del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Fernando Gonzalez, Tim Henman, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, David Nalbandian, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin and Jo Wilfried Tsonga.

Why fourteen and why them? I arbitrarily filtered the dudes who have played against Federer at least three times at Grand Slams AND three times at final rounds. That leaves out dudes like Coria, Ferrer, Moya, Ljubicic, Ferrero, Stepanek, Wawrinka, Soderling, Philippoussis, Baghdatis Monfils, Enqvist or Novak with whom the Swiss had memorable matches as well in high-leverage situations. But for the sake of sampling depth I had to make a cut.

According to ATP Performance Zone by Fedex, Federer has won 40% of his return points during his career. That number stays the same for his current 52 ranking weeks, per Tennis Abstract, the source of all the statistical data to come in this report. As for break points, prior to his loss to Ramos, Federer had converted 41% in his career, but dropping to 39% in 2015. In other words, he appears to perform roughly at the same level no matter how important the returning point is. Nevertheless, that hypothesis does not hold up against some foes.

I examined Federer’s return data of 286 matches versus the fourteen players listed above. I found out that Federer won 38.3% of the total return points played. His break point conversion sits at 39.5%, right on his mean against the average player. Then I came up with the “Clutch Returning Rate”(% of break points won percentage (minus) % of return points won), which is far from being the Holy Grail but if the sample is big enough it can give us an idea of how shaky his racket gets when the Swiss enjoys a break point opportunity. We will see how this clutch index also suffers when facing familiar opposition. The mean is +1.0% but again: in short individual samples it can be misleading.

I put together a table with the returning numbers of Federer against each player, assigning each box a color depending on the number of standard deviations between each result and the aforementioned means. Lots of green means Federer handles the opposition as if they were his servants. Lots of red indicates Federer would be more comfortable changing his two sets of twins’ diapers than being across the net from this person.

Parameters I used to paint the upcoming tables. Own creation.

Of course, I will group these players together subjectively, the way one of my favorite writers, Jonah Keri, does in his weekly baseball column “The 30” at Grantland.com.

My Lovely Slaves

James Blake

A vast green area that could feed half the cows in Switzerland. The overall return results tell us the whole story of the rivalry here. Federer feasted on Blake’s serve easier than Obelix on wild pork, including a 7–5 6–3 6–0 rout at the 2006 Indian Wells final in which Federer won 54.5% of his returns…against Blake’s first bullet! The bad clutch differentials mean little when you can create break opportunities over and over. Fed generated 16.7 break points per Grand Slam encounter, by far the highest among this pool of players. Casually, Blake only surrendered one break point at the Beijing Olympics quarterfinals. Guess who won that day on Chinese soil?

Fernando Gonzalez

Federer was just an awful match-up for Feña. The Chilean could not return Federer’s serve. His one-handed backhand was too glaring of a weakness and Federer would always start working the point from there. Federer broke Gonzalez at least three times in every match they played, except from the only occasion in which the Chilean got the better of him, at the 2007 Masters Cup round robin, when he converted just one of his six chances, before falling 3–6 7–6 7–5. Still, per Tennis Abstract, Federer posted a dominance rate of 1.23 and won 51.2% of the points, peripherals that show the Swiss could have prevailed. The Grand Slam sets’ record speaks for itself: 12 sets for Fed, just 1 for Feña.

Andy Roddick

Why would I list Roddick here if all but one box on the RPW and BPW rows fall within one standard deviation of the mean? A-Rod even held Federer tighter at Grand Slam finals. Yes, but…

  1. The clutch differential is positive across the board. That means he struggled to cope with pressure even more than Federer, especially at Grand Slams.
  2. They played none of their Grand Slam meetings at the French Open. Three finals at Wimbledon (fastest surface among Grand Slams) and one at the US Open (second fastest).
  3. Hell, Roddick was unarguably a top 5 server on the planet for a decade. Other bombers such as Ivo Karlovic (14 matches) and Feliciano Lopez (12 matches) have held Federer to 30.9% and 27.9% of break points converted respectively.

Conclussion: Roddick’s serve was a non-factor against Federer.

High Stakes? Owned

Tomas Berdych

For somebody who has beaten Federer six times and owns such a huge weapon in his serve, it seems bizarre that there is not a red or at least orange box. Not only has Berdych allowed average or above average (in finals) overall returning numbers, but he’s also melted down under pressure. Berdych has always had the aura of playing the top dogs close but then falling short when it matters. These numbers corroborate that description. In his two losses versus the Czech at Grand Slams, Federer is just 5/14 on break points, a lowly seven break points per match average and 35.7% conversion rate. In his four wins, the numbers spike to 21/42, 10.5 BPPM and 50% conversion rate.

*No stats from the Athens Olympics match.

Lleyton Hewitt

Now they call him Rusty, but at the dawn of the century he was the peskiest opponent on tour. The best counter puncher. The youngest ATP number one and year-end number one. He beat Federer seven out of their first nine meetings, including a tremendous comeback 5–7 2–6 7–6 7–5 6–1 at the 2003 Davis Cup semifinals, after Federer had won his first major. Unfortunately for Rusty, the Grand Slam rivalry did not start until the 2004 Aussie Open, the beginning of Federer’s long tyranny atop the tennis world. Hewitt’s fighting soul can be seen in the left side of the table. He never gives up on a game. Hence his above average break prevention numbers against Federer (barring Grand Slams). Hewitt curiously got the better of Federer the last two finals they met, Halle’10 and Brisbane’14, in which Federer had putrid stats: 3 for 20 break points won, a 15% that will assured him two losses versus a contemporary foe whom he’d beaten FIFTEEN straight duels.

Andy Murray

Murray’s consistent all-around game style matches up well against Federer, so it is not a surprise he has enjoyed great success in this rivalry, winning six out of the first seven clashes at the Masters 1000 level. The Swiss is currently riding a five match winning streak since though. The Dunblane native is to me a rich man’s Lleyton Hewitt. He boasts heavier weaponry than the Australian but lacks a strong mentality. That explains the lopsided Grand Slam record favoring Federer. Murray has been able to beat him only once at that level, yet needing to go the distance at the 2013 Australian Open. The two columns on the right exemplify why lots of people dismiss Murray from the Big Four…besides from Murray somehow being a bust on clay until recently. But that’s a different story.

Old fellas I learned how to subdue

Andre Agassi

Agassi won the first three meetings, then he never sniffed at a victory again. He absolutely crushed 20-tear-old Fed at 2001 US Open R16 6–1 6–2 6–4. Federer won 29.6% of his return points and struck out all nine times he had break point. That skews the far right column, albeit Federer had no time to breath in his two wins over the Vegas master in New York. A five set decision at the 2004 quarterfinals when Federer lost the dominance ratio battle and a slightly easier four setter in the following year’s final, when Agassi saved 14 out of 18 break points. The Swiss’ biggest demolition of the American took place at the 2003 Masters Cup final in Houston. Five for seven break points en route to a 6–3 6–0 6–4 result.

Tim Henman

Henman had Federer’s number. He prevailed in six out of their first seven battles (and retired injured in the other). He was the more mature player in a high-offense match-up, although those straight sets wins at 2003 Paris Masters and 2004 Rotterdam still impress me to this day. After that? Federer must have visited Henman’s doctor and obtained the Brit’s antidote. He never dropped a set in the final six matches, never again reached the tiebreak. That Henman was not the best returner in the world was the ATP’s worst kept secret. Federer had to be somewhat efficient on break points or produce a high volume of opportunities and capitalize in a few, because the Brit only enjoyed eight break point chances after 2004 Rotterdam.

Is he trying this month?

David Nalbandian

One of the most gifted tennis players I have ever seen. Barely four months younger than Federer, he could definitely look at him in the eye, pure-talent-wise. Aside from his win at the 1999 Orange Bowl, Federer (not included in the head-to-head as the 1999 US Open Junior, when Nalbandian won) could not beat the Argentinian in the first third of their careers. Until a 6–3 6–0 round robin win at the 2003 Masters Cup, Nalbandian had won all five rounds, including two at the Grand Slam level. So, what happened? Well, the Cordoba native was, along with the next guy, the streakiest player on the tour. He could be über-dominant for six weeks and then drop stinkers the next six. Federer had trouble with Nalbandian the first two finals they played. At the 2005 Masters Cup a near-unassailable Federer wobbled to a 6/20 performance on break opportunities and lost 6–7 6–7 6–2 6–1 7–6 in Shanghai. Almost two years later, a magical Nalbandian in beastmode gave Federer zero chance after dropping a quick first set in Madrid, lifting the trophy with a 1–6 6–3 6–3 win. His last win against Fed came merely two weeks later at Paris-Bercy. All these three wins came on indoor hard courts. Never owner of a cannon serve, Nalbandian rarely got free points on slower surfaces which explains Federer’s abnormally high conversion rate overall.

Marat Safin

A bomb is about to explode. There are two cables. The consequences of cutting one or the other lie at the opposite poles. Welcome to Marat Safin’s tennis life. A dude who can lose three times to 20-year-old Fed but can beat top-shape Fed on one of the best tennis matches of all time. As Felix Mantilla can testify, the big Russian was mentally volatile. Starred as a teen, messed around for a while, enjoyed a second peak when he turned 24 and 25, then fell off a cliff with seldom bright appearances before retiring at a young age for today’s standards. The numbers on the middle and right columns mean little with these kind of players on such short samples. Bad Safin was a fun match for Federer, full of cleanly hit strokes and tons of winners both ways. Good Safin was the best bet to beat peak Federer in 2004–2005 away from clay. The powerful serve was never going to let Federer win over borderline-average percent of the return points, but the +4.3% clutch differential explains the lopsided 10–2 head-to-head for the Swiss.

Not even Einstein can explain this rivalry

Juan Martin del Potro

Seriously. Who owns who? Here it is a script of a conversation my inner Smeagol just had with my inner Gollum.

  • Smeagol Pabs: “At first glance, Federer dominates right? 15–5 edge on the head-to-head.”
  • Gollum Pabs: “Sure pal, but…what is all this red on the finals column? Delpo is more clutch when it matters.”
  • Smeagol Pabs: “Yeah…sorta…but then look at the Grand Slams column. That’s where tennis legends deliver. Delpo can go enjoy his two Basel titles. Federer takes the nod.”
  • Gollum Pabs: “Are you crazy? The biggest match these two have played was the 2009 US Open final. Delpo won 3–6 7–6 4–6 7–6 6–2. Federer delivered a pathetic 5 for 22 on break points. I keep voting for Delpo.”
  • Smeagol Pabs: “And despite that fluke match, Grand Slam return stats are all above average for Federer. You are arguing that the exception outweighs the norm. I’m not trying to sell the 6–3 6–0 6–0 win by Fed at the 2009 Aussie Open as the common denominator here. He won’t break Delpo 7 out of 11 times ever again. Stop trying to create confusion to the readers.”
  • Gollum Pabs: “Because they played twice at Roland Garros, with Federer clawing back from steep deficit both times. We all know that on clay the return stats are more benevolent than on faster surfaces. You are the one misleading the audience. Are you trying to be a sophist or what?”
  • Smeagol Pabs: “No I’m not! You are! These two like splitting sets. They love going the distance such as the 3–6 7–6 19–17 at the London Olympics, in which Federer won just 2 out of 13 break opportunities. Delpo is a great player but, sorry, Fed took 15 out of 20 matches off him.”
  • Gollum Pabs: “ That’s questionable. A lot of Federer in his peak against teen Delpo matches here altering the head-to-head. And then Delpo’s body broke down.”
  • Smeagol Pabs: “I quit. You’re such a boneheaded moron that can’t just admit the evidence.”
  • Gollum Pabs: “It’s not my fault you know nothing about tennis bro. Peace.”

Can we skip his service games? The guy I secretly hate playing

Jo Wilfried Tsonga

Federer prefers seeing Jo-Willy on the other half of the cou…draw. It’s quite a torture for him to return Tsonga’s serve. Ever since he burst onto the scene with his 2008 Australian Open final run, the Frenchman’s serve has been an unsolvable hieroglyph for the Swiss. Federer’s overall RPW% and finals RPW% versus Tsonga are the lowest among the pool of players I examined, while the Grand Slam figure is the second lowest. At the same time, his overall break point conversion ranks at the rock bottom. The last meeting was Tsonga’s finest on serve. Federer was able to win a pyrrhic 21.4% of his return points at the 2014 Canada Masters final with no break point chances allowed by Tsonga. Even on clay Tsonga serve makes Federer suffer. At the 2013 French Open Tsonga limited Federer to 26.3 RPW% and 3 break opportunities in a straight setter for Ali. The following year, Federer pulled a miracle comeback in Monte Carlo despite converting on just 2/19 break points. One positive: Federer outperforms his regular return numbers in clutch situations in all three columns.

Can I buy a break? Can you retire, actually?

Caution: If you are a die-hard Roger Federer fan you may not want to see the tables below.

Novak Djokovic

He and the next guy I’m writing about are the best players Federer has ever faced so it is not astonishing to see worse overall return numbers than against previous players. Furthermore, Federer and Djokovic have squared off against each other enough times that the results are everything but flukish, at least on the three columns on the left. By far the most refreshing number for Federer is the 21–21 head-to-head record (although it gets ugly if we narrow it down to 2011–15, starting the year when Djokovic fully exploded and Federer turned to the wrong side of thirty: the Serb leads 15–8 over the last five seasons).

Federer has created double digit break point opportunities only six times since the 2011 Australian Open semifinal. Yet, he converted at an abysmal clip: 3/10 in Melbourne, 4/25 at 2011 French Open semifinal, 3/11 at 2012 Wimbledon semifinal, 2/10 at 2014 Shanghai Masters semifinal, 2/10 at Indian Wells final this year and the famous 4/23 at the US Open final a month ago. They split those matches. The lone clash Federer never stood a chance was Down Under. He had an outside shot in Palm Springs and as I wrote, he was the superior player for most of the evening in Flushing Meadows.

What about the painful consecutive final losses at Wimbledon? They were tossups, especially last year’s, when Federer resembled the genius who owned the center court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for five straight years. Federer won 49.2% of the points in 2014, in spite of Djokovic’s finest serving ever which, aided by the grass, limited the Swiss to 29.9% of return points won.

The most worrisome row for Federer is the clutch differential as far as I am concerned. No matter the importance of the match, his break point conversion rate is underwhelming compared to the already weak overall return numbers.

Rafael Nadal

Barring Tsonga, Nadal wins the most points on his serve against Federer. That, despite Nadal’s serve is light years away from being Pim Pim Johansson’s cannon. And despite they have played 15 out of 33 matches on red clay. Let that sink in.

Since Nadal will sit back 10 feet behind the baseline on clay and hit a deep return to anything thrown to him, it is critical for Federer to punish Rafa’s serve and take advantage of a high percentage of the chances.

Nadal on clay is Federer’s nightmare match-up, as everyone knows, so I won’t touch the tactical aspect of the game. But it’s the mental edge on pressure points what makes Federer fail against Nadal. The best Fed put together straight up A+ showings on slow clay courts like Monte Carlo, Rome or Roland Garros, good enough to beat Nadal. If he couldn’t was because Rafa raised his game when he needed to, whereas he melted mentally. It’s the 4 for 18 on break points at 2006 Monte Carlo Masters, 5/15 at 2011 French Open or the ultimate calamity 1/17 at 2007 French Open what condemned Fed to lose to Rafa over and over. The Grand Slam finals’ numbers are atrocious for Federer, headlined by the 6–1 6–3 6–0 at the 2008 French Open. His 0.52 dominance rate that day is his lowest against Nadal. He created a staggering 12 break point chances on average in such matches. Yet he couldn’t convert to save his life.

Best outing against his nemesis? Without doubt the 2011 Tour Finals round robin match in London. A one-hour 6–3 6–0 demolition, 2.68 dominance rate, 66.7% total points won (including 53.7% when returning) and an efficient 4/6 break points.

Federer is 106/318 = 33.0% on break point chances in Grand Slam finals.

37/138 = 26.8% versus Djokovic & Nadal.

69/180 = 38.3% versus the field.

He dominates the field 14–1 (lone loss to del Potro when he went 5/22 at 2009 US Open).

He is down 3–9 against the Serbospanish combo.

Just to make sure these 3700+ words make sense.