Brain Game: Federer's Hidden Advantage
The length of a rally tells you a lot about the personality and mindset of the player controlling it.
Roger Federer defeated Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 7-5 in the final of the BNP Paribas Open on Sunday by owning a very important slice of the match that most resembles the moves and countermoves of playing chess – the mid-length rallies of five to nine shots.
Shorter rallies are all about striking first with the serve and return. Long rallies are all about patience and wearing your opponent down, both physically and mentally. Mid-length rallies are a thinking man’s game. This is where shot combinations come into play, and where Federer clearly gained the ascendancy in the match.
2017 Indian Wells Final - Rally Length Points Won
• Wawrinka 38
• Federer 37
• Wawrinka 16
• Federer 30
• Wawrinka 2
• Federer 4
Federer was a step ahead in the final when rallies required just three, four or sometimes a fifth shot hit by either player. These points are dominated by combinations, like a chess player making a move for the sole reason of forcing their opponent to counter with a move that is slightly less advantageous.
Federer dominated the mid-length rallies 30-16, often times playing deep first to extract a short ball, and then manoeuvring to the net to finish with a precision volley. In the opening set, Federer finally broke Wawrinka leading 5-4, converting the only break point seen by either player.
The scoreboard appeared close early on, but Federer’s dominant 12-4 first-set advantage in the mid-length rallies gave him the hidden advantage of momentum.
Federer Serve +1 Forehands
The beginning of Federer's mid-length dominance was often set up with a serve that was immediately followed by a forehand. Overall, Federer hit a serve +1 forehand 67 per cent (24/33) of the time in the final, winning a higher percentage with this strategy than starting with a backhand as his first shot after the serve.
Serve +1 Winning Percentage
• Serve +1 Forehand = 16/24 (67%)
• Serve +1 Backhand = 5/9 (56%)
When Federer landed his first serve, he hit 82 per cent (14/17) serve +1 forehands, winning 57 per cent (8/14) of them. He won two of three starting with a backhand. When Federer started the point with a second serve, he won an extremely high 80 per cent (8/10) beginning the point with a serve +1 forehand, and broke even on the backhand wing, winning three of six.
Attacking The Net
Overall, Federer came to the net 22 times in the match, winning a very healthy 82 per cent. It was vintage Federer swarming forward, finishing with six backhand volley winners, three forehand volley winners, and two overhead winners.
Points Won At Net
• Approach & Volley = 13/15 (87%)
• Serve + Volley = 5/7 (71%)
The net was quite often the finishing point for Federer's mid-length rally points, building with a serve +1 forehand combination, and then ending with a spectacular volley, or forcing a passing shot error from Wawrinka.
Federer's backhand stole the show at Indian Wells in the second week with impressive victories over Steve Johnson, Rafael Nadal and Jack Sock, and it was once again a strong performer in the final with eight winners, and only eight unforced errors.
But it was Federer's forehand, with 12 winners and just six unforced errors, that paved the way to victory against Wawrinka. Wawrinka averaged hitting his groundstrokes harder in the final, averaging 120km/h to Federer's 108km/h, but Federer ultimately proved superior building the point.
This is the first time Federer has won Indian Wells without dropping a set. Amazingly, he may never have hit his backhand as well as he did in the desert this week. Federer is not simply regaining his previous best form. At 35 years old, he is blazing a trail to a completely new level.