Stan Smith marvels at Federer's game

7/2/2005 - Tennis

WIMBLEDON, England -- One of the great things about Wimbledon is that so many past champions come back every year, as television commentators, coaches, tournament or tour executives, or simply as interested and knowledgeable spectators.

In the players' lounge, you can always find experts to analyze the current players from both observation and first-hand experience. This year, it seems as if they all are raving about Roger Federer, who will be going for his third straight men's singles title on Sunday against second-seeded Andy Roddick.

I asked Stan Smith, the 1972 champion and a former U.S. national coach, if Federer reminds him of any particular player.

"He reminds me of a great player, I tell you what," Smith said. "It's unbelievable. He has his own style. He doesn't serve huge, but he serves well, and he seems to hit some big serves when he needs to. He returns serve very well. … He doesn't try to overhit the ball."

The only time he saw Federer get flustered to the point of trying to muscle the ball too much, Smith said, was in the semifinals of this year's French Open final against Spanish left-hander Rafael Nadal, who won the title at age 18. Clay is Nadal's favorite surface. Grass is Federer's, though he has the skills and temperament to win on all surfaces.

"Against Nadal at the French, he sort of panicked in that match and overhit the ball, but that's unusual," Smith said. "He seems to understand the game very well. He knows when he has to go for shots, and he knows when he doesn't have to go for shots -- which is something that some players never understand.

"He's got no weaknesses. He's got confidence. He's been winning, so even if he gets behind, he doesn't panic, knowing that he can come back. One thing he does well that protects him on a fast surface like this against a really good server is that he returns serve very consistently. He has showed that in his Wimbledon career against Pete Sampras (whose four-year winning streak Federer snapped in the fourth round in 2001), [Mark] Philippoussis, [Goran] Ivanisevic, Roddick. Big servers are dangerous against almost any good player, but he seems to handle the big serve even better than guys like [Andre] Agassi or [Jimmy] Connors -- some of the best returners ever. Federer gets a lot of balls back. He's tough to ace.

"The key thing, to me, is that he moves unbelievably well, and he's in great balance when he hits almost every shot. That allows him to have such great consistency."

Does Federer's combination of quickness and strength remind him of anybody?

"His movement is more like Sampras -- very powerful, but also very graceful," Smith said. "The other thing that he has going for him is he is a smart player. Other smart players can figure out a different tactic to use, but they don't have the skills to do it effectively. Federer has the tools to execute changes in tactics."

Does he expect Roddick to do anything different from the two previous times he played Federer at Wimbledon, losing in straight sets in the 2003 semifinals and in four sets in last year's final?

"Roddick hasn't had a very good record against him," said Smith, noting that Roddick is 0-4 against Federer the past two years and 1-8 overall. "This is a surface where Roddick can be dangerous if he's on. He was on last year until the rain break, and then Federer was able to change things around a little bit. Roddick started missing. I think Roddick feels now that he doesn't have to go for shots quite as much, but he's going to have to serve well and attack all the time to be effective."

Should Roddick go to the net more than he usually does?

"Yeah, I think he needs to take advantage when he hits a big forehand and Federer runs wide to hit a slice backhand," Smith said. "Andy has got to be in on it and make him pay the price. Otherwise, Federer just floats it back deep and then he's able to run down the next ball. But if Roddick is able to come in, the next time Federer goes wide, he's going to maybe have to do something more with the ball. Maybe that way he'll start making some errors."

Tony Roche, Federer's coach, said the other day that Federer's serve-volley game is so effective because he uses it sparingly. He doesn't rush the net all the time. Did Smith concur?

"Yeah, he's effective because if the players start getting the ball back [in rallies], then he can come in," Smith said. "He's a very smart player. He
has a good feel for the game. He's very good at the net. He misses very
few volleys."

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.