Roger Federer is 35 and, increasingly, plays like he has no time to waste. That manifests in a very literal way: He barely waits for the ball to hit the ground.
Federer took some time off after winning the Australian Open to frolick with his trophy on mountaintops—typical champion shit. And in his first match back—a 6-1, 6-3 rout of Benoit Paire that lasted just 54 minutes—he was striking the ball so early it often looked like he was scraping the ball right off the hardcourt. Today, Federer hit nearly ever ball as it was coming up off the bounce, shot selection that might feel awkwardly or unnecessarily aggressive for most others but is looking more and more like his norm.
We saw the origins of these tactics in his Australian Open run, as his solution to the puzzle of his career, Rafael Nadal: Step into the court, take the ball early before it kicks way over your shoulder, and rob your opponent of as much time as you possibly can. (The basic logic is that the earlier you strike the ball, the earlier you put the ball back in your opponent’s court, and the less time you give them to recover after hitting their last shot. Repeat ad nauseum: these little slivers of time really add up.) In that final you could always catch Federer’s feet sneaking inside the baseline, applying constant pressure.
As it turns out, this looks to have not been a one-time fix, but the blueprint for the rest of his career. And it makes a lot of sense. For Federer, it’s wise to rely on the aspects of your game that won’t age as unforgivingly as, say, your knees might: your sense of timing and your feel for the ball, which you’ve spent your whole life refining to freak levels.
Not all of it made it into the above clip, but Federer tested out all manner of improvisational aggression on court today. He’s putting away serve returns; he’s hitting swinging volleys; he’s hitting strange little flicked shots from no man’s land. Against Paire, every few backhands he’d hit one that resembled a damn half-volley from the baseline. And it certainly appeared as if he would do these things not because he’d been cornered into a tough position, but because he wanted to—because this is how he plans to win now. From the standpoint of competition, this match was a farce, but from the standpoint of tactical adaptation, it was exhilarating.
What comes next? Let the serve bounce, because the rules say you have to, but besides that, just hit everything out of the air? I’d watch that. The guy could probably pull it off.