Superior serve could make Federer first among equals
There is very little to choose between two of the game's major egos, writes Kevin Mitchell
WHILE Boris Becker could argue he was a better player than Stefan Edberg (he won 25 of their 35 encounters), he knows when he and the Swede look down on their respective charges in the Wimbledon final today, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, their history will count for very little.
What will matter more is the way they bring their considerable tennis knowledge to bear on two players whose sense of self-worth probably matches their own. There will be a lot of ego-massaging before the finalists walk onto Centre Court at 2.0pm.
However, while it is true that their return to the game as coaches in recent months has created much interest, Becker and Edberg cannot do a lot more than fine-tune genius. It is not as if they are tutoring a couple of kids off the street.
They might well be able to give these wonderful players timely encouragement in pre-match discussions. They could suggest in training that they look for different ways to attack or defend. They might even spot something in the other player that could be exploited.
But all of that is to ignore that Djokovic and Federer have — like Becker and Edberg — got to the summit of the game trusting the talent they were born with.
It has taken many years to develop those skills, thousands of hours in the gym and on the practice court as well as the experience of top-level competition. What players this good need is to be told, well, how good they are. What they find harder to accept, sometimes, is that they could work harder to make their game more complete.
And there is one area of the game that needs constant attention: The serve. In that respect, Djokovic has had more work to do than Federer, who for most of his career has been a prince among servers, combining precision with power, “picking his spot,” as he says, and he was near his best in first repelling the howitzers of Milos Raonic in the second semi-
final on Friday, then tormenting the Canadian with the nagging accuracy of his own.
When it was pointed out to him that he upped his body serves against Raonic to 13pc of his attack, Federer replied: “It’s definitely not utilised enough, the body serve. It’s just easier to go for the corner and think that, if I hit it perfect, it could be an ace. With the body serve, you always feel, if you don’t hit it right, it’s in the slot to be hit.
“You’ve got to be confident to hit the spot on the body serve — especially on the grass, especially second serve. But clearly it depends on who you play against.
“If you realise a guy is not so good on the stretch, you clearly go there more; if you feel like a bigger guy has a harder time in the body, you go there more often. The goal is always to try to make it as difficult as possible for your opponent.”
There aren’t many players in the game better “on the stretch” than Djokovic — so it is likely Becker will be advising the Serb to expect a few rib ticklers.
For Djokovic, meanwhile, the serve has not always been as solid as it has during this tournament — indeed, since he took up with Becker.
As Becker correctly observed after his player’s semi-final win over Grigor Dimitrov: “Novak is not a natural server, it is most obvious to see.
“But his serving was excellent. I don’t think he can serve much better.
“You can’t all the time serve 35 aces but, overall, his second serve was very gutsy at times, with the big kick serve, wide serve. You’ve got to be very convinced how you play, otherwise you can’t do it.”
In this tournament, Djokovic is ninth on the list of aces with 73; Federer lies 12th with 69, but accuracy is his strength and is tournament 10th with 83pc success on first serve, whereas Djokovic doesn’t figure in the top 20.
But it has been noticeable recently — certainly since Becker arrived — that Djokovic has more wrist-snap in his service action and, when grooved, that can cause any opponent problems in trying to work out exactly where the ball is going to land and at what speed.
So these are the minutiae of strategy and technique that Becker and Edberg will be contributing to the debate: Seemingly minor but perhaps major in the final telling of the tale.
There is a chance, of course, that Djokovic and Federer will not listen, and ignore some of the counselling, getting caught up instead in the intensity of the moment.
When it comes to intuition, Federer probably has an edge on Djokovic, whose devotion to drills and preparation is so meticulous that the slightest hitch in his preparation can drastically affect his performance.
In that respect, this is a final to savour: 32-year-old Federer relishing a run of form that has confounded not only those who have written him off many times over the past couple of years, but opponents as well, against 27-year-old Djokovic, who will resume his place as world number one if he can win a tournament in which he has been only occasionally commanding.
It is desperately hard to call. Historically, there is little between them. Indeed, they will equal the match tally of their coaches in this final: 35.
Federer leads 18-16. I have a feeling he might stretch that lead by one.