Commentary

Federer's serve allowing him to manufacture easy points

Why is Roger Federer the only men's player left at Wimbledon who has yet to lose a set? He's serving lights out.

Originally Published: July 2, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Roger FedererRyan Pierse/Getty ImagesThus far at Wimbledon, Roger Federer has been broken just twice through five matches.
Ask any slugger, and he'll tell you a 90 mph pitch with a little movement is harder to hit than a 95 mph fastball straight down the middle. That also explains Roger Federer's serve.

Check out the Wimbledon stats prior to the quarterfinals, and you won't find the Swiss in the top four in aces or serve speed. Of the eight men remaining in the draw, however, he has won the most points behind his first serve. It's kind of a means to an end, a la future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux unleashing a sinker to prompt a ground ball. The aces come when they need to, mind you.

Federer outdid himself on serve Wednesday, overcoming a rain delay and some history to crush Mario Ancic 6-1, 7-5, 6-4 and move into a Grand Slam semifinal for the 17th straight time. Two more victories, and Federer will become the first man in more than a century to claim six straight Wimbledon titles.

"Roger places his serve probably better than anyone and puts it on the spot better than anyone," U.S. Davis Cup captain and ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "Because of the rest of his game, you know if you leave the return short, he's basically going to beat you with the forehand on the first point, so that makes his serve even better."

Long forgotten

Predictably, both were asked about their 2002 rendezvous in the build up, Ancic triumphing in straight sets. If it wasn't evident before, both said it was a distant memory. You can believe them.

Federer, who signaled his arrival with a win over Pete Sampras a year earlier at Wimbledon, hadn't even made a Grand Slam semifinal. Ancic, was actually in good health then.

He contracted mono last year and was bed ridden for months, sending his ranking spiralling outside the top 10.

When that subsided, a shoulder injury kept him out of the U.S. Open.

Guess what happened at the Australian Open in January? A stomach virus sapped him, prompting a withdrawal.

Federer has won all six matches since, including two at Wimbledon, losing only a single set.

"It's a very distant memory,'' Ancic, now ranked 43rd, said.

"[The memory] is there but it's not as present, let's say, as the Wimbledon match against Sampras,'' Federer added. "It's something I've been talking about rather than seeing, really, whereas the Sampras match I saw it, I don't know, 25 times.''

-- Ravi Ubha

His fourth-round encounter Monday with Lleyton Hewitt, the aging, ailing Australian, was a good example of his backing up his serve. The fastest serve by each clocked in at 127 miles per hour, and a mile separated their average speeds on first and second serve. Yet Federer staved off all eight break points against one of the finest returners around and cruised in straight sets.

"He hits the target every time," Hewitt said. "When he's like that, it's not easy on this surface because his serve sets up the point for him to play in his comfort zone."

Poor Ancic, who, six years ago, was the last man to tame Federer on grass. He felt the full force Wednesday.

Federer served at nearly 70 percent, captured a whopping 88 percent of points behind his first serve and, more eye-popping, won more than 80 percent of points from his second.

"Today he was serving really, really well, not only the first serve, even with the second," said Ancic, who is known for his big serve. "He had a great speed and was really pushing me, not giving me any chance to hit and come in, which of course going into this match, I was hoping I can have these opportunities to do that."

Ancic didn't muster a single break chance, got to deuce once and took a solitary point on his opponent's serve in a first set you'd have missed if you blinked -- it was a 20-minute job.

The opening game of the third, when Ancic held following nine deuces, lasted almost as long.

Only Robin Soderling, in the second round, and Marc Gicquel, in the third, have managed to break Federer during the grass-court campaign.

And here's the scary thing: Federer doesn't practice the stroke too often because his shoulder starts to hurt.

"It doesn't really matter much to practice it because it's about being consistent with it and being concentrated on it, because it's really the only shot I can control," Federer said. "That's why the serve is such an important part of my game or anybody's game."

Federer will be talking a lot in the coming days about a prospective matchup -- well, he'll be asked a lot about it -- with Rafael Nadal in the final, which would make it three years in a row. First up, though, is a resurgent Marat Safin in the semis Friday.

Nadal hasn't been a slouch on serve, either, having been broken three times in five matches. He didn't face a break point in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 demolition of British hope Andy Murray on Wednesday.

After losing the 2007 final in five tight sets, Nadal conceded there was one difference: Federer's ability to manufacture cheap points on serve.

"Rafa is serving better than last year," McEnroe said. "His serve has gotten a little bigger and more effective. You can almost sense he's been working on it for a year to get ready for this match."

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.