Throughout his best years, Roger Federer was renowned for his famous blocked return. He has used the blocked return probably more than any other return throughout the course of his incredible career.
And it has served him well. Perhaps, it might have fallen just slightly short at certain times. But seriously, who can realistically argue with the career that he’s had.
Strategically, the primary purpose of the blocked return was to neutralize the opponent’s serve. It was a relatively timid part of his otherwise extremely aggressive game, but it did allow the rest of his game to come into play. It helped him to get a lot of returns back in play. Depth was the key. If he managed to get the return deep, it meant he could step in and take up an advanced position on the baseline, something that he just loves to do.
Technically, he didn’t really come over the ball much, often even adding some slice to the ball. This involved a relatively short backswing, which easily accommodated the aggressive positions he likes to take up while returning.
Federer rarely went hammer and tongs on the return. When he did go for it, it was usually as a changeup, and often involved running around to the left of the ball to try and blast a forehand. Sure, there have been occasions where he’s gobbled up his opponent’s weaker second serves, as Andy Murray would testify. But the blocked return, especially on the opponent’s first serve, has generally been the default.
The reason that I’ve been referring to his blocked returns in the past tense is that this 2017 season, it seems to have become a thing of the past. He’s been really going after the return since his return to the tour after a six-month injury layoff. And so far, it’s worked wonders. He’s stepping into the returns, taking the ball at the top of its bounce and really driving through it. Any serve that can be attacked is being attacked.
As Federer’s kept getting older, he’s made a concerted effort to keep the points shorter. He’s always been one to play first strike tennis. And he’s kept looking to get that strike in earlier and earlier. This approach has also impressed on his returning habits, but to a much smaller extent. This season, the return seems to have gone on overdrive.
Previously, many opponents tried to pick on his relatively weak returns high on the backhand side, none more so than Rafa Nadal with his swinging leftie serve – don’t get me wrong, Federer still racked up some of the most impressive returning numbers on tour. Andy Roddick, one of the all-time great servers must have been sick and tired of seeing Federer casually block his cannonball serves back at his shoe-laces – but this season, he has handled such tactics with the most attacking of intents.
His backhand return is where the biggest difference has been noticeable. In his numerous matches against Nadal, he had never gone after Nadal’s serves, almost invariably to the backhand corner, as much as he has in their 2 meetings this season. And both times he’s come out on top. In Indian Wells, he absolutely obliterated Nadal, with numerous clean winners straight off the backhand return. It’s clearly been a conscious, well thought out tactic and not just something that has just… happened. And he’s been playing that way against everyone. And having won the first Grand Slam and the first ATP Masters 1000 of the year, you would have to say it’s working perfectly. There has been just one match this season where we saw the return of the blocked return – the Australian Open quarter-final against Mischa Zverev. In that match, Federer used the block to get the return down at the shoe-laces of the serve-and-volleyer, Zverev with devastating effect.
Going after the return as much as Federer is, is high-risk high-reward tennis. And it’s helping him gain an advantage early in the rally, and step up sooner. As Federer has himself stated, the larger racket that he is using nowadays is also enabling him to do that. The larger racket head helps him get easy power into his shots, especially on the backhand side. Previously, with the smaller racket-head, it was much harder for him to hit over the ball with any power on the single-handed backhand. The trade-off here is that the timing has to be absolutely spot on, or else the ball might sail long. But Federer has proven his versatility and adaptability over and over again throughout his career. And he’s done it again this time.
Roger Federer has already achieved more than most would have expected this season, including himself. A miraculous return to the tour where he won his 5th Australian Open title at the age of 35 has been followed by a dominant display to win the first Masters 1000 event of the year without dropping a set. Could he perhaps add further to his major tally this season? Or maybe even reclaim the No. 1 ranking? Perhaps become the oldest year-end No. 1? Let’s see. One thing we have learnt is that it’s never wise to bet against Roger Federer!