Philipp Kohlschreiber is a terrific shotmaker. I still remember his 2008 firecracker of a match, against Andy Roddick. That was the first time I saw Kohlschreiber. The then 24-year-old German took out Roddick in the third round after five ridiculously high-quality sets. In that match, Philipp Kohlschreiber showed us the true depth of his talent pool – and it runs very deep indeed. I thought he would be a top ten fixture for a while and more importantly, I really believed his game would match up well against Federer’s.
Fast forward nine years on and Federer had compiled an impressive 11 – 0 head to head against Kohlschreiber. It might not be Federer’s widest head to head differential, but this matchup has been very very one sided in a different way. In eleven matches played over a nine-year span, Philip Kohlschreiber has only managed to win three sets off Federer. It’s a preposterous stat for someone who strikes the ball as well as Kohlschreiber. You may think it not so surprising, considering Federer’s own level of skill. There is a lot of truth to that. However, it is not the whole truth.
When you look at Federer’s record against Kohlschreiber and drill down to the scores, it becomes clear that Federer has found a comfort zone in the German’s game. Call it a fail safe or a weakness. Perhaps we should call it a go to strategy he can employ anytime, especially when things get tight. Nadal has enjoyed a similar fail safe against Federer – his high bouncing forehand to Federer’s backhand. In the past, whenever Federer got on a roll against Nadal, the Spaniard would resort to what worked best. He’d use that strategy to turn the tide of the match in his favor. As long as he could eek out enough big points with it, he’d give himself the best chance of winning. Win, he did. For the Federer vs Kohlschreiber matchup, the go to strategy is a bit more subtle. Federer takes advantage of Philipp Kohlschreiber’s poor court positioning.
Getting back to Federer and Kohlschreiber, court positioning goes beyond this basic principle. At this level of tennis, it also focuses on understanding where your opponent is on the court, in relation to where you are and what effective shots are open to you, based on this transient fact. Roger Federer, reigns supreme in this regard.
For most of us local club contestants, court positioning at its basic level is captured by the simple phrase, “get back to the middle of the court.” It is tennis rallying 101. If you hit a shot from either wing that you had to track down, retrace your steps back to the middle of the court. The more you hold the court’s center, the better you can dictate play and move your opponent around. Let me digress by saying I’ve never seen another player use this principle as well as Andre Agassi did in his time. It won him many matches and many a slam. Getting back to Federer and Kohlschreiber, court positioning goes beyond this basic principle. At this level of tennis, it also focuses on understanding where your opponent is on the court, in relation to where you are and what effective shots are open to you, based on this transient fact. Roger Federer, reigns supreme in this regard. Over the course of his career, Federer has built a reputation on having an uncanny awareness – a sixth sense as it were – of his court position and that of his opponent. Court positioning can be used to explain 60% of Federer’s miraculous shots. Remember that no look forehand dink passing shot he pulled off against Berdych in the semifinals of Wimbledon? It is one thing to have the level of talent in itself to pull off that shot in any scenario. But if you look at that point and the build up to that shot, it was really the only effective shot to hit in that moment. That Federer was aware of his position, how close Berdych was at net, how far the Czech had veered to the left and could quickly decide that that shot was the right one to hit, is downright scary. When it comes to relational court positioning, Federer can outmaneuver the best of them.
For all the advantages it gives him, relational court positioning is not the primary reason for Federer’s success over Kohlschreiber through the years. We will call relational court positioning a fringe benefit in this case. If you analyze Federer’s matchups against the top players over time, there are usually fringe benefits and a primary reason for his success against them. Against David Ferrer, the primary reason is simple. Firepower. Being a defensive baseliner, David Ferrer has excellent court positioning. Most baseliners, especially the defensive ones, have this. They have to. It is the key to hitting that shot which turns defense, to offense. Against the big hitters, however, it usually is relational court positioning. Roddick, Del Potro, Soderling, Kyrgios, Raonic, you name it. Federer has made a career out of getting their vaunted serves back in play and then proceeding to make monkeys out of them during the rally.
Against Kohlschreiber, the difference has been in the German’s return court positioning. Philipp Kohlschreiber absolutely loves to whack the ball. Forehand or backhand, it doesn’t matter. Against serve speeds coming in at the range of 120 – 145MPH, you have to put a little negative distance between yourself and the baseline if you hope to get a full swing in. That is exactly what Kohlschreiber does. He returns way behind the baseline and relies on his excellent shot-making thereafter, to get away with the lost court position. Philipp Kohlschreiber can take the return early. Ironically, he did so in that afore mentioned match against Roddick. However, that was a zoned in Kohlschreiber playing Andy Roddick. Against Roger Federer, there is a marked difference. Federer may not have the pace of Roddick, but he has so much variation with his serve – it is a shot I break down in this post. I suspect Kohlschreiber stays back not so much for fear of pace, but for fear of the unknown. He has to give himself more time to adjust to an error in guessing and as such, successfully return Federer’s serve. That sacrifice in court positioning has meant one thing over the years and it held true again last night. Kohlschreiber almost always starts off a rally on Federer’s serve, on the defensive. That is a terrible way to begin rallying against one of the game’s greatest offensive players. The stats showed why last night. Kohlschreiber couldn’t fashion out a single break point on Federer’s serve.
I suspect Kohlschreiber stays back not so much for fear of pace, but for fear of the unknown. He has to give himself more time to adjust to an error in guessing and as such, successfully return Federer’s serve.
With this knowledge, the rest falls into place. We all know Federer’s game really picks up when he’s feeling confident on his serve. The more confident he feels, the faster he runs through his service games – which means the faster Kohlschreiber finds himself serving again. The common saying is that tennis is a game of inches. I love to think of tennis as a game of minute increments in pressure. Keep winning enough fundamental exchanges and when the pressure games or points come around, the chances of your opponent cracking, are very high. Returning so far back, opened up the court for Federer’s full arsenal. By the third set – even after a ‘back rub’- Federer was hitting delicate drop shots, running around his forehand to hit sharply angled inside in forehands that dropped right on the service line before hopping away from Kohlschreiber. The German was always out of position and Federer was always commanding the baseline. Agassi would have been proud.
I do wonder, with a fair bit of interest, if Philip Kohlschreiber is aware of this positioning problem. The few times he looked threatening, were when he stepped forward to hit a return. I distinctly recall a sizzling backhand return winner at 5 – 4 in the first set, that sent the crowd gasping in awe. Like I said, he has the ability to do it and it is a wonder that he doesn’t do it more often. Not that Federer minds. He is through to a potential blockbuster. A quarterfinal showdown with Juan Martin Del Potro.
Relational court positioning is in play now.