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Brain Game: Federer's Aggressive Gamble Pays Off

Dubai, U.A.E.

Federer© Getty ImagesRoger Federer's aggression turned the match around against Novak Djokovic.

Roger Federer hunts the short ball as well as anyone on the planet. 

The Swiss came within a point of being down a set and a break then roared back to defeat Novak Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the semi-finals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Saturday. 

Federer’s stunning comeback was built around attacking the net in multiple ways and taking Djokovic out of his comfort zone of trading blows from the back of the court. The match was played in two halves, with Djokovic dominating the opening stanza and then Federer taking control to claim his first victory over the Serb in 18 months. 

Federer got off to a slow start, dropping his opening service game with three backhand errors and a forehand error and unraveled losing 12 of the opening 14 points to fall behind 3-0. He failed to convert the only break point opportunity of the opening set he saw at 3-1, Ad out, when Djokovic hit three big forehands and approached to Federer’s backhand, but the slice passing shot floated just wide. 

Watch Match Highlights

The most important point of the match occurred in the second set with Federer serving at 2-2, 30-40, where he somehow willed himself to win a point he absolutely should have lost. Federer hit a second serve to Djokovic’s forehand and was behind in the rally from the beginning. Federer’s second forehand of the rally hit hard into the net tape and could have gone anywhere but significantly changed directions from heading to the deuce court singles sideline to floating high and deep in the middle of the court. Djokovic approached two shots later and Federer ended up hitting a miraculous backhand half-volley passing shot up the line standing in no-man’s-land. It was as spectacular as it was bizarre. 

Now it was Djokovic’s turn to unravel. From deuce, Djokovic made four consecutive forehand errors to be down 0-30 in the following game and then had to wait through a five minute and 25 second rain delay before finally losing serve with a forehand error from a huge backhand down the line for Federer. The train was leaving the station.

It was all Federer from this point on as he rolled through the rest of the second set and broke in the opening game of the third set to surge to the finish line. As Federer’s confidence grew from saving the break point, so did his commitment to bring the battle to the front of the court. Federer jumped on any short ball in six significant ways to make Djokovic as uncomfortable as possible, repeatedly having to hit passing shots to stay in the match.

1. Serve and Volley First Serve – won 81% (9/11)
Federer was extremely effective with this first strike tactic, doing it nine times in the deuce court and only twice in the Ad court. He did it four times out wide in the deuce court, winning three of four, and five times down the middle where he also only lost one point. Winning the guessing game of “will he or won’t he” serve and volley, as well as a mix of locations, made Federer very unpredictable and therefore much more dangerous. 

2. Serve and Volley Second Serve – won 66% (2/3)
Federer first used this ultimate surprise tactic at 1-1, 40-0 in the second set which was a very safe score to practise the lower percentage tactic. He lost that point but it was a perfect dress rehearsal for the 4-2 game in the second set where he successfully did it at 15-0 and 40-30 to Djokovic’s backhand to really send the message that the rest of the match was going to be played on his terms. 

3. Return & Approach – won 25% (1/4)
As weird as it sounds, this tactic is less about winning the point as it is about rattling the cage and extracting double faults at a later stage. It’s an audacious play that shocks the server and lets them know they are under full attack without a word being said. This was crystal clear at the start of the third set when Federer approached on the first two points of the set, winning the first and losing the second. The pressure metre instantly skyrocketed for Djokovic and the plan worked perfectly for Federer as he got handed the game with a double fault at 30-40. Federer could not have drawn it up any better.

4. Drop Shot & Approach – won 0% (0/3)
Federer did not win any of his three drop shot points but still was able to build pressure on Djokovic at the same time. Federer followed all three drop shots to the net, moving the battle away from the back of the court to the front, creating uncertainty in Djokovic’s mind and court position.

5. Approaching – won 77% (10/13)
These points represent the traditional way to come forward after developing the rally from the back of the court and jumping on a short ball to finish at the net. Federer’s primary way to come forward was behind a big forehand to Djokovic’s backhand but he also was eager to sneak in with a backhand slice given the right opportunity. 

6. Climbing the Ladder 
This last area represents Federer’s improved court position, particularly in baseline play. In the opening set Federer hit 80 per cent of his shots from the baseline and only 20 per cent inside. In the second set and half way through the third he had improved forward, or “climbed the ladder” to hit only 67 per cent from behind the baseline and 33 per cent inside it. 

Federer scored one of his biggest wins in recent times by attacking the net with several disruptive strategies that will also serve him well in Sunday’s final against Tomas Berdych

Brain GameCraig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Read more at

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