- Joel Drucker
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As the top two players in tennis for nearly three years, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal invariably trigger dialogue about their many contrasts in everything from hair and wardrobe to how each walks and talks.
But Federer and Nadal share one major attribute. Each is at heart a baseliner, prone to hanging back in the court and working over opponents with their massive forehands.
Anyone who wishes to dispatch those two has a strategic choice. One approach calls for building better weapons -- for example, trying to hit a wider range of shots than Federer or attempting to out-steady Nadal.
Given how much each excels at his strengths, that's a tall order. In the history of tennis, it's rarely been done. Ivan Lendl didn't overtake John McEnroe with improved volley skills. McEnroe didn't topple Bjorn Borg because he could keep more balls in play than the great Swede.
Instead, most who overcame the ruler took the second route: McEnroe, for example, seeing the problems created by the best of his time -- Borg -- worked to hone a set of tools that would disrupt Borg's strengths. In other words, if you look at tennis like a mathematical equation, the top player creates a problem statement. In the case of Borg, and more recently, Federer and Nadal, the problem is this: How do you pose difficulty for a seemingly impregnable baseliner?
Several recent efforts versus both Federer and Nadal have proven quite revealing. Radek Stepanek has always been considered a versatile, clever and disruptive player. Ranked as high as eighth in the world two years ago, injuries took him down to 30th by the end of 2007. But in 2008, he's climbed his way back to 13th in the season-long points race.
Though it was beguiling to see Stepanek pull out of the semis in Rome last week, the more notable match, of course, was his win over Federer the previous day. Even more significant in Stepanek's tight 7-6, 7-6 victory was the way he attained it. For starters, he clearly gave thought to a game plan -- a way to match his strengths against Federer's weaknesses.
If you're reluctant to view Federer as a man of weakness, instead consider the Swiss' lesser strengths; or better yet, the things he is reluctant to do, such as come to net frequently. Stepanek saw a territorial opening. Rather than try to outhit Federer, Stepanek attacked relentlessly. He did so intelligently, too, varying the speed and direction of his serve, playing within himself from the baseline mostly by hitting off-pace balls that forced Federer to generate his own speed, looking to jump on Federer's second serve and come in -- while forcing Federer to repeatedly hit backhand passing shots. It's not an easy game plan to pull off. But over the long haul of a match, the impact of cumulative annoyance and pressure can be severe.
Said Stepanek, "I came to that match with a strategy of not playing many rallies because once you give Roger timing and the rhythm to his shots, he can work with the ball amazingly well. He's opening up the court and then you're just running like crazy. So that's why I choose to play aggressive; don't give him the time, trying to play, you know, the rallies as short as possible, and playing serve and volley, attacking his second serve."
That Stepanek was able to pull this off on a clay court -- albeit a fast one -- should hopefully continue the bugle call that's been sounding its way through the 2008 tennis year. Though not as much a net-rusher as Stepanek, Novak Djokovic's ability to drive the ball deep and forcefully -- to take the action to Federer -- was critical in his win over the Swiss in the semis of the Australian Open. Fierce offense was also the magic word for Americans Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick when they beat Federer in Indian Wells and Miami, respectively. Fish, in particular, was looking to drive his service returns early, establish position at the net and avoid being jerked around the court by Federer.
A more conventional form of clay-court offense proved successful versus Nadal in Rome. Juan Carlos Ferrero, long a grinder who mostly won by dint of consistency, opted to step closer to the baseline and drive his clean two-hander down the line to Nadal's backhand. According to ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, "You've got to take your chances against Rafa, step inside the baseline and use your tools. Ferrero has a big pocket on his backhand side, so it was good to seem him taking things to Rafa."
So while it's not likely a purely offensive style such as nonstop serve and volley will dominate pro tennis, the need to play smart, disruptive offense is emerging as useful versus both Federer and Nadal.
How each will respond to increasing attacks figures to be quite interesting. Federer actually began his career coming to net frequently on his serve, but has since seen that the road to success is mostly behind the baseline. Nadal is not bad at playing deft backhand volleys, but perhaps his best offensive upside would be to beef up his left-handed serve so he can take control of points that much sooner.
Says Brad Gilbert, former coach of Roddick, Andre Agassi and Andy Murray, "What's great is that Roger and Rafa set the bar and have helped make everyone better players. So thanks to them people are seeing you have to be more aggressive."
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
Think the struggles of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are a fluke? Not quite. Opponents are entering matches versus the world's top two players with intelligent strategies, and it's paying off.