Roger Federer surprisingly doesn’t make the top 80 all-time top returners list on the ATP leaderboard, coming in at number 88 with a career win rate on first and second serve at 32.6 and 51 respectively. In the rich repertoire of Federer, who for most of his career just sliced his backhand on second serves, return seemed more an end to the means. In Sunday’s Miami Open final however, Federer’s metronomic returns undid John Isner.
Rafael Nadal stands way behind the baseline as receiver. Novak Djokovic lets returns rip with his two-handed grip. Federer took the opposite route to the Tour’s top two players, standing close to the baseline (often jumping inside the court at the point of return) and handling Isner’s bazooka serves with a one-handed block.
The American was disrupted by the slower, more accurate returns and conceded ten break points and four breaks. “Roger returns a little bit differently, kind of blocks it back,” said Isner after the 6-1, 6-4 defeat. “You know, Roger was standing in close, as well, just reacting very well and very fast to my serve. I mean, he’s something else.”
Ahead of their first meeting in nearly three years, Federer (as he is won’t to do) tried to lull Isner into a false sense of security. “You just hope that the stars align, that you pick the right side, he picks the wrong side, maybe he misses a serve,” said Federer of Isner, who has a career average of 18.1 aces per match.
Yet after winning the toss, Federer chose to receive first and broke his opponent in the opening game. And with straight-set wins over 6’6 Daniil Medvedev (fourth round) and 6’8 Kevin Anderson (quarterfinals), Federer had showed that his 37-year-old eyes and reflexes could handle 6’10 Isner’s fastballs. While he struggled with his service, Isner also couldn’t win a single return point against Federer’s first serve, and won just three points against the second serves.
The positioning, the chipping & charging and gentle, blocked returns come naturally to the Swiss, who broke through in an era dominated by ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras. “It definitely helped being able to play against the serve-and-volley generation more than big servers, per se,” Federer said afterwards.
“They would make you feel the pain, you know, in some shape or form, either by coming in to your weakness time and time again, or by variation. So I think it comes from there.”