The Butterfly Effect and Roger Federer
“I knew how close I was for the last few years,” said Roger Federer, after winning his seventh Wimbledon title on Sunday and regaining the No. 1 ranking a month before turning 31. “Some people didn’t quite see that maybe out of different reasons.”
It’s an easy comment to overlook, sounding like the typically insistent self-confidence by an aging athlete, perhaps with the touch of Federer hubris that inspired the parody Twitter account PseudoFed. But Federer’s remark contains an essential truth about tennis, a sport that at every level is defined by the narrowest of margins, in a way other major sports aren’t.
Crucial shots clip lines on the court, or just miss them. Even shots well inside the lines require the smallest margins of timing and precision of contact between ball and racket. A series of these shots decides one point, which could be the break point that decides a game, a set and even the match. And a match’s outcome could change an entire tournament, the result of which could reshape the rankings. Those then affect future tournaments, by changing players’ seeds and the draws they face. Like a butterfly flapping its wings and changing the course of history, a few millimeters on one shot could change the future of tennis.
Not every shot matters, of course, certainly not in a rout or in a minor tournament. But tennis’s scoring system magnifies the importance of individual moments. Other sports have narrow margins: field-goal or soccer kicks bouncing off goal posts, last-second game-winning heaves in basketball. But even when they decide games, most contests don’t eliminate the loser from contention in the way nearly every tennis match does. And when a crucial close call does decide a playoff series, the losers are under contract and keep their regular-season earnings, no matter their performance. A tennis player’s prize money, and standing in future tournaments, can be decided by one lucky netcord.
What Federer had in mind, more specifically, was a series of close calls he faced in matches in recent years. The two most obvious ones are his losses to Novak Djokovic at the semifinal stage of both the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open tournaments, when in each match Federer held two match points. Had Federer won any of those points, he would have had a solid chance of beating Rafael Nadal in the final on the tournament’s fast hard courts that favor Federer’s game. Three of the match points were won by aggressive, risky Djokovic tactics, most famously his go-for-broke service return on the first Federer match point last year. Often forgotten is that Federer’s next match point ended when his forehand clipped the netcord and sailed out; a little higher and that shot could have won him the match.
There have been other close calls for Federer in the last two years, including those in two four-set losses to Nadal that could have been reversed or at least forced to five sets if a Federer drop shot hadn’t landed just wide, or a Nadal lob hadn’t caught the baseline. For instance, Federer lost a four-set match in 2010 in which he lost a set after holding set point and forcing Robin Soderling to come up with an almost impossible shot to save it. Had he won that match, Federer would have broken Pete Sampras’s record for most weeks at No. 1 more than two years ago instead of waiting until next week to do it.
Federer knew he was close because he’d been on the right side of such close calls before, barely surviving the fourth round at the 2009 French Open before winning the title and, a month later, needing an errant Andy Roddick backhand volley to win Wimbledon. Even Federer’s minor slump in the last two years would have looked a lot worse had Alejandro Falla maintained his high level of play for another set at Wimbledon in 2010.
And Federer’s path back to No. 1 required that a series of events break his way this time. Federer leads Djokovic by just 75 points in the rankings. Djokovic has made several great escapes recently, but if he’d also won just one of several close matches he’d lost in the past 52 weeks — such as one in which he was two points from victory in a semifinal at Federer’s hometown tournament last fall, or one in which he almost toppled big-serving John Isner — he’d still be No. 1. At Wimbledon, Federer survived a third-round scare in which five times he was two points from defeat, and a fourth-round battle with a game opponent and his back.
Even winning the final Sunday, over Andy Murray in four sets, required some very close scrapes for Federer: his successive drop-volley winners, which require perfect timing, to win the second set and avoid falling behind by two sets; a rain shower that lasted just long enough to force the closing of the roof to make conditions for Federer more favorable in the last two sets.
The other signature moments of the tournament also came so very close to not happening: Nadal might have held off Lukas Rosol if the first four sets had gone a little faster and the roof didn’t close for the fifth; Yaroslava Shvedova’s once-in-a-blue-moon golden set required certain incredibly difficult shots; Serena Williams barely escaped two three-set matches before winning her first major title in two years; the surprise men’s doubles champs won eight sets in tiebreakers by three points or fewer in a contest with smaller margins than singles.
It’s hard to reconcile this view of tennis with the dominance of the top male players. But it makes sense, even if you don’t believe they are more “clutch” than the pack chasing them. Not every match is close, and when the best players get mismatches that mean they don’t need to aim for lines or win as many big points. When the best players win a few matches, they benefit from the sport’s structure, which awards them higher rankings for easier draws in future tournament, plus more prize and sponsorship money to spend on travel, coaching, fitness training, scouting and anything else that can extend their edge. That all helps them continually reach the later stages of tournaments, where the top players face each other, the margins are smaller and anything can happen.
At those stages in the last two years, seemingly everything was going wrong for Federer. Lately, more often and especially these past two weeks, it’s gone right for him. No wonder Murray didn’t seem devastated by the loss, just rueful of missed opportunities in the match and aware he’d have other opportunities to get close to his first major title in the future.