Fed vs. Anderson
Wimbledon quarter-final 2018
Kevin Anderson pulled off an amazing upset of Roger Federer just a day ago. In 4 previous meetings between the two players, Fed had not lost a set (8-0) and had won their most recent encounter by 6-1, 6-1. I saw that match on television. Fed literally did not allow Anderson to play any offense on that day. Every return of serve was dialed up into the aggressive range. This backdrop to yesterday’s match would all suggest a Fed romp. So, what changed?
Before getting into what happened on the court, let’s look for a moment at what happened before the match. By this I simply mean that the tournament referee (or committee, I’m not sure) scheduled this match on court #1. There is an unspoken rule in pro tennis that the featured matches go onto center court. Instead of Fed vs. Anderson (#1 vs. #8), he elected to put Djokovic vs. Nishikori (#12 vs. #24) on center court. The commentators were quick to observe that this took some pressure off of Anderson – his only prior experience on center court being a one-sided loss. Although Fed (to his credit – he is after all, a pro!) denied that this had any effect on him, I don’t buy it. Subconsciously, he was thinking something like this:”I am not the featured match. This means that I am not that good.” He definitely played like these thoughts got to him. So, #1 reason why this upset happened: the committee interfered with the normal scheduling of matches. They exerted a subtle, but real, anti-Fed bias. Shame on them!
Once we get to the tennis, the cause of the Fed loss is a lot clearer. In contrast to their last meeting (the 6-1, 6-1 drubbing), Fed played almost exclusively defensive returns of serve. His plan was that Anderson would simply be too inconsistent from the back of the court. It nearly worked, as Fed had a match point at 2 sets up and Anderson serving at 4-5, 30-40 in the third. However, when Anderson escaped this trap he began to realize that the only shot that Fed could hurt him with was the serve. He began to relax and miss less. Fed was now in trouble because he had no way of getting Anderson uncomfortable. As an aside to this story: Fed served beautifully for the entire match. This is a good omen for his future results as an effective serve is a key to winning at the top level of tennis.
But Anderson’s plan went beyond Fed’s tentative returns. He served many crucial serves to the Fed forehand, a shot many consider to be one of the greatest shots in tennis history. Here are the stats from the official Wimbledon website:
First serves: Anderson won 34 points serving out wide in the deuce court and 22 serving down the T.
In the ad court, he won 31 serving down the T (to Fed’s fh) and 17 out wide.
Second serves: Anderson won 12 points serving out wide in the deuce court and 3 serving down the T.
In the ad court, he won 6 serving down the T (to Fed’s fh) and 6 out wide.
These margins are astronomical! Anderson attacked right into the heart and soul of Fed’s game and made it work. Courageous (and he had to be considering his past record!). This serving tactic had a second effect. Fed, shaken by the serves of Anderson, never found the confident forehand in the rallies. So, Anderson not only got easy balls to hit off of the Fed return, but he collapsed Fed’s confidence in his rally forehand. Rarely have I seen Fed play so many tentative and/or errant forehands.
What Fed could have/should have done: Once he established his 2-0 lead in sets, Fed should have freed up his forehand. Instead he played the Holding On For Dear Life strategy which I warn against in Deconstructing Tennis. Even if he missed few at this stage of the match, he would have been free going forward. This loss was painful for Fed because he knows that he let a game, but inferior player, off of the hook by playing with no conviction. These are the losses which haunt a Champion. Even if Fed had eked out this match, it did not bode well for winning the championship. He would have needed to be firing on all cylinders to win the whole thing.
I’m also a big believer in a new idea: the way that a player plays on a given day is not just a reflection of who they are on that day, but it is also an indication of who they will be in the future. Each match that you play is not just that match but a preparation for your matches of the future. This is a relatively short-run effect and won't last for more than a few months. However, because Fed skipped the clay court season, the Miami results which I discuss below were still fresh in his mind.
At Miami this year, Fed beat Borna Coric in the semis by pushing the ball. My contention is that this shabby win prevented Fed from accessing his best tennis at Wimbledon. He “learned” that he could play at a lower level and still win.