As he returned to Wimbledon on Monday for one final photocall, Roger Federer posed a fascinating question. If he is so magical and masterful, why don’t more people play like him?
Well, that wasn’t exactly the wording. But Federer is clearly puzzled by the prevalence of baseline grinders on the tour. Over the last five years, the balance has tilted so far towards the Novak Djokovic model – relentless pressing from the back-court - that tennis is in danger of losing its texture.
“I have played almost every player here [and they] wouldn’t serve and volley,” said Federer. “It’s frightening to me, to see this at this level. I look at the stats and go into whatever round it is and see that the guy I’m going to face is playing two per cent of serve and volley throughout the championship.
“I’m going, ‘Okay, I know he’s not going to serve and volley,’ which is great. We are talking about grass, and it was playing fast this week, and I wish that we would see more coaches, more players taking chances up at net.”
The decline of the net jockey may owe something to the instant-gratification culture of modern sport. Kids find it easier to hit backhands with both arms when they are small. But the two-hander tends to encourage a more predictable style of play.
Single-handers don’t just slice better, they also have an advantage in net play. The non-dominant hand sits on the throat of the racket as they surge forward, ready to prepare a volley grip. Look at the majority of doubles players, or the many great Wimbledon champions – Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras – who all followed the Federer model.
Federer doesn’t come forward as much as any of those men, perhaps because courts and balls are slower these days. But he does have that option in his armoury. As arguably the most complete player on the tour today, he can bring out a serve-and-volley whenever he likes.
“Because surfaces are not super-fast like they used to be, back in the 80s, you have to hit a lot of good shots to come through a Murray or a Djokovic,” said Federer. “Especially over five sets, it catches up with you and it’s favourable for the top guys.
“[Playing] a slugfest with Andy from the baseline or Rafa [Nadal] for that matter, good luck. If you are No. 50 in the world, it is not so simple to take him out. I know you can easily get sucked into that mode when you don’t want to attack, but if you can’t volley you aren’t going to go to the net. [It’s about whether] the coach has taught them to play differently.”
Federer has been carrying a cold all fortnight, and he sounded particularly hoarse when he arrived in the interview room on Monday. The only thing he has come close to losing at this year’s Wimbledon is his voice.
Having spent Sunday night at the Champions Dinner, held in London’s Guildhall, Federer explained that had moved on to an exclusive bar in the small hours. His head, he said, was still ringing from the experience.
“I drank too many types of drinks,” he said. “After the ball we went to – what would you call it? I guess it's a bar – and there were almost 30 to 40 friends that were there. Got to bed at five, then woke up, and just didn't feel good. But we had a good time.”
There was to be no pirouetting around the ballroom with ladies’ champion Garbine Muguruza. Dancing has not been a part of the Champions Dinner since 1976, even though Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams went for an unofficial twirl two years ago. Instead, Federer addressed Muguruza directly on the stage, telling her how well he thought she had handled the pressure throughout the tournament.
“I think she was a bit tired,” he said on Monday, “but she looked wonderful. The occasion [for dancing] never really came. When you’re up on the stage and there’s no music whatsoever, it’s hard to get going.” He clicked his fingers to illustrate the point. “It was more just photo-shoots unfortunately.”
So where does Federer go from here? His win-loss record for 2017 stands at an astonishing 31-2 - and he held match points even in those two anomalies. As long as he steers clear of injury, more historic feats must lie in wait.
“The target now is to enjoy being Wimbledon champion for a year,” he said. “And Australian Open champion and you name it… So, I haven’t sets sights on a number of grand slams that I want to achieve. I was very content at 17, I must tell you.
“Of course, I was going to be happier at 18 and I’m even happier at 19. But 17 was a wonderful number so I think for me it’s just about enjoying myself, staying healthy and then we’ll see what happens.”