Roger Federer’s Footwork, explained by the David Bailey
Federer Exerts His Power From the Ground Up
This is how Roger Federer transcends tennis before taking a single swing. He moves with feet that whisper when most squeak, guided by instincts more sixth sense than court sense, his head held still, as if balancing a book on top.
Federer covers the court in a way that tennis players say they cannot compare to other tennis players. They say he plays with the anticipation of Larry Bird and the graceful athleticism of Michael Jordan. The nimble feet of Jerry Rice. The timing of Wayne Gretzky. The poetic power of Muhammad Ali.
The argument for Federer as the greatest player in men’s tennis history starts from the ground up, with feet snug in lightweight custom Nike sneakers, with muscles sculpted from training sessions in Dubai, with movement that makes Hall of Famers marvel.
“When Roger is in full flight, he looks like he’s gliding,” the former No. 1 Jim Courier said. “Almost like he’s floating above the court.”
Everything else that separates Federer from his peers — the wizardry behind his shot selection, the ferocity of his forehand, the success on varied surfaces — starts with an artful dance that someone like Kathryn Bennetts can appreciate.
Bennetts runs the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium. She grew up in Australia, with tennis courts on every corner, and when she became a professional dancer, she noticed the correlation of movement between both passions. Elite dancers combine speed, dexterity, power and coordination. Grace stems from their awareness of their feet and the way movement flows from there. They move easily, in balance, made to appear that way through thousands of hours of repetition.
In Federer, Bennetts found the Mikhail Baryshnikov of tennis.
“He has this smoothness to him,” she said. “An ease that makes him special. He’s an artist, so refined. Like how dance transports you to a different place, so does he.”
It starts with instincts. Federer anticipates where the ball is headed and arrives early by cutting off the angle. He adjusts his footwork accordingly, using crisp, tiny, deliberate steps, or long, loping strides.
In doing so, he monopolizes the most important element in professional tennis: time. The ball appears to hang for an extra second, allowing Federer to generate more racket speed and aim at a sharper angle. The quicker he reaches the ball, the more he also steals from opponents, allotting less time to recover and forcing them closer to the baseline.
“It feels like you’re being squeezed,” said Justin Gimelstob, a retired pro. “It’s not just psychological. It’s literal. He’s shortening the court.”
Fellow pros can tell with their backs turned when Federer is moving well, because he makes so little sound. Unlike Rafael Nadal, whose physical style is unleashed in a cacophony of grunts and squeaking sneakers, Federer operates in relative silence.
Watching Federer close on a ball reminds Gimelstob of an Olympic diver — the smaller the ripple, the greater the success. When Federer moves well, Gimelstob said, it is as if he dives off the Empire State Building with no splash.
Brad Gilbert, the coach and commentator, said Federer conserved energy by not wasting movement, by allowing balls to pass that other players, particularly Nadal, chased. This does save Federer’s energy, but Gilbert said it also hit on a larger point. Federer knows when to strike, in crucial moments, when least expected.
Federer’s 6-foot-1 build — leaner on the top, thicker and stronger on the bottom — is balanced. When he runs, he keeps his upper body almost level. He moves laterally, not vertically, around the court.
“Like out of a Miss Manners class,” Courier said. “He does most, if not all, of his movement with his legs. That’s part of his genius.”
Federer’s footwork is most evident, though, when he is playing poorly. Only then does he lunge or lean, looking uncomfortable or off-balance. When Federer struggled in 2008, he had missed three of his usual training sessions in Dubai because of mononucleosis, the Beijing Olympics and a bad back.
Courier compared Federer at Wimbledon in 2008 to a sports car with one tire severely low on air. This might seem like a small difference, but in a sport in which victory and defeat are often separated by millimeters, it presented a real handicap.
“It all flows from there,” Courier said. “You can be the most gifted player that tennis has ever seen, which I would contend that Roger is, but if you’re not in position to hit it, you become mediocre really quickly.”
Gilbert said Federer in 2008 was like a baseball batting champion hitting .355 instead of .388 — a small but notable difference, particularly at Wimbledon, where he lost to Nadal in a five-set match many described as the greatest ever.
A Human Instructional Video
Describing the footwork is one thing. Quantifying it is another. This falls to David Bailey, an Australian who prefers the title footwork specialist to coach.
Bailey contends footwork is an underdeveloped part of tennis, and in inventing his Method, he studied more than 30,000 clips of tennis movement. Borrowing from the instructional style of Bruce Lee, Bailey broke tennis footwork into what he called 15 contact moves — basically athletic movement when striking the ball — and he provides a corresponding clip for each in his instructional videos.
A solid pro performs seven contact moves at a high level, according to his research. Three are offensive moves, two defensive and two rally. And these moves define a player’s style, whether as a baseliner, for example, or a clay-court specialist.
Federer is the only pro Bailey studied who performs all 15 moves at a high level. If Bailey wanted, he could use Federer for each video clip.