Stan Smith Reveals Key To Federer's Late-Career Success
Swiss superstar Roger Federer turns 38 in less than three weeks. But he is still the No. 3 player in the ATP Rankings, and his 38 wins in 2019 lead the ATP Tour. The eight-time Wimbledon champion was within one point of claiming his 21st Grand Slam title at The Championships, falling just short against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
For International Tennis Hall of Fame President Stan Smith, one thing in Federer’s game today stands out, even after lifting 102 tour-level titles.
“One of the keys I think for him is his balance. He stays in good balance when he hits the ball and so it prevents him from being injured and it also makes him consistent and also enables him to recover much better after he hits a wide shot, for instance,” Smith said. “He’s in such good balance, he doesn’t have to take an extra couple of steps to recover his balance. He hits the ball on balance even when he’s moving hard to get back into the point. That’s one of the reasons he’s been so effective.”
The Swiss is not the only one, though. Smith points to the other members of the Big Three — World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal — as strong movers, which has helped them maintain their spots atop the sport despite being the three oldest players in the Top 10.
“Djokovic is like a rubber man. He’s got unbelievable flexibility. I think part of it is genetics and part of it is he works at it. He works at his flexibility. Jimmy Connors had tremendous flexibility in the upper body, kind of contorting,” Smith said. “Even Rafa is able to get in some very tough positions and be able to recover back into the court. Flexibility is quite important. Some of it is genetic and some of it is really, really working on it and that also helps prevent injury as well as gives players more power. They’re able to be flexible like that.”
Before Smith returned to Newport, Rhode Island for Saturday’s International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he was at Wimbledon, where he was delighted with the level of play at The Championships, specifically pointing to the blockbuster semi-final in which Federer defeated Nadal and the championship match.
“It was great tennis. The Federer and Nadal match was unbelievable tennis, really high quality tennis all the way through. Nadal could play on the grass. He has won the tournament and he’s certainly not a pushover on the grass,” Smith said. “Federer played at a very high level to win that match.
“I thought Federer played really, really well the whole match [in the final] and Djokovic sort of went up and down, especially in the second set. He just sort of went away for a while and in the fourth set he wasn’t as sharp. But he was sharp in the three tie-breaks and that made the difference with him winning all three of them.”
The Big Three shows no signs of slowing down, either. Although Smith mentioned elite players such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Jimmy Connors to reference players who have enjoyed success at an older age, he also acknowledged that the game has changed since then.
“There are different eras of players — players used to play fairly long. Then you went through an era where they stopped, 35 would be the max. Now, you’ve got Federer taking it to the next level and it’s more difficult now because there’s so much competition out there,” Smith said. “There are very few easy matches and so you’re playing tough matches all the time and you’re playing on these slower surfaces. We used to just play on grass at the US Open, the Australian Open and Wimbledon and then the tournaments in between like Newport, between Wimbledon and the US Open, were on grass. So you weren’t playing points that were quite as long and I don’t think it was quite as hard on the body.
“But for the players today, it’s really tough on the body and to be able to hang in there… is quite impressive.”
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic each holds plenty of records. And one thing that may also be helping them stay near the top is that they are still striving for more.
“Federer’s done so well, he doesn’t need to play, and Djokovic doesn’t need to play and neither does Nadal. It depends upon how much they really want to compete, want to play and travel," Smith said.