Staying in the Red Zone

Robin Haase stepped up to the T and got into his service motion, after a few ominous bounces of the ball.  Though Federer had taken the first serve after three sea-saw breaks of serve, the spectators knew Haase was here to play.    The Dutchman slammed a fireball out wide that would have sent any other tennis player sprawling.  But this was Federer.  He took one graceful step to his right and stuck out his racket.  The freight train of a ball was casually deflected back, with most of its kinetic energy sapped.  It floated back to Haase like a feather in the wind, riding the gentle waves and making Haase take more steps back as he attempted to determine where the ball would bounce and thus determine his hitting zone.  On the other side of the net, Federer had skated back to the center with twinkling feet.  Turns out the ball’s bounce zone was right on the baseline and an off balance Haase could only hit it back mid-court.  Federer had already moved forward and gracefully shifted slightly left.  The whiplash forehand was in play and he swatted away the short ball.  Winner.

That’s been Roger Federer these days.  In yesterday’s article, I  predicted that Haase would be a dangerous opponent, but Federer would win in two tiebreak sets.  Turns out he did it playing one tiebreak set but the other one was anything but one-sided.  Haase was playing the best tennis I’ve seen him play to get to the semis this week and he represented the type of player who had posed problems for Federer since the turn of this decade.  Yet Federer, as he’s been doing since the beginning of the year, neutralized Haase’s power by playing even more aggressively than he does in other matches.  That’s saying something because Federer’s game these days is very aggressive.  Haase got to experience what the likes of Berdych, Kyrgios, Raonic, Zverev and Cilic have all experienced in 2017 – Federer redlining his game.

The Swiss star hugged the baseline and took his opponent’s ground-stroke bullets on the rise.  He blocked searing serves back with pace, floated them back deep and even took them with a full swing return.  He punished short balls, attacking them ruthlessly and when he went for the winners, it was with full commitment.  These days there are no second guesses with Roger Federer.  Yet he hardly played a one dimensional power game.  He mixed it up with spins and angles.  He served and came to net, at one point producing a spectacular reflex backhand stab volley that set up a forehand put away volley.  Haase threw his best at Federer and got that right back with something extra.  With a lot extra.  These days, it’s as if Federer’s saying “let’s both push it and see how far our respective games can go.”  So far only two players have come up with the right answer and Haase would not be the third.  When he hit his ceiling, Federer obliterated that barrier and just kept going.  What resulted from their thrilling race was a close match that was never in doubt.

How Federer keeps on doing this, has baffled everyone.  A clue to his terrific success this year, might be his state of mind.  He is so free and seemingly so devoid of any pressure.  I’m not saying he does not have pressure.  You cannot generate this kind of success and not have the fundamental pressure of keeping it going.  However Federer knows he occupies a summit in Tennis that is shared with no other.  The way things are going, it doesn’t look like that summit will be shared anytime soon.  In essence, we have a 36 year old aging Champion, with a record 19 grand slam titles and absolutely nothing to lose.

Throughout Federer’s career, he has been known to play his best tennis when he’s freed up – which is usually when he’s out in front.  He has been labeled the game’s greatest front runner.  In terms of history, that’s where he is now.  He’s out in front and in a zone unlike any other.  How long he’ll stay in it is anyone’s guess, but it’ll take a special performance to yank him out of it.

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