French Open 2012: Does Roger Federer Have The Form?

Roger Federer has encountered a bit more resistance than expected through four rounds of the 2012 French Open.

The top half of the women's bracket has fallen apart to a degree, with No. 6 Sam Stosur and No. 10 Angelique Kerber the two highest-seeded players remaining. On the men's side, however, Tuesday will see a couple of heavyweight battles.

Roger Federer vs. Juan Martin Del Potro

Entering the French Open, Roger Federer was looking sharp (he said unironically, as if Federer isn't always looking sharp). He had only lost in two tournaments since the Australian Open, and he has won more tournaments than Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal combined since last year's U.S. Open. He dropped only one set to Richard Gasquet, David Ferrer, Janko Tipsarevic, and Tomas Berdych on the weird blue clay in Madrid, then he plowed through Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andreas Seppi (who almost beat Djokovic in the French Open fourth round on Sunday) in Rome before falling to Djokovic in the finals. He has not been nearly as successful on clay through his career as he has on other surfaces (though that has as much to do with the emergence of Nadal as his own shortcomings), but he was looking strong.

And technically speaking, Federer has indeed continued to look decent at Roland Garros. He is, after all, in the quarterfinals, and he has not yet been taken to five sets like Djokovic was in the last round. But he has looked strangely beatable. Despite the easiest draw imaginable to date, Federer has dropped a set in each of his last three matches. At the same time Djokovic was losing the first two sets to Seppi, Federer was losing the first to David Goffin and going 5-5 in the second. Yes, he won 14 of the match's final 20 games and advanced, but with Nadal laying waste to the field on the other side of the bracket, what is the state of Federer's game as he looks to defeat No. 9 Juan Martin Del Potro and advance to his seventh French Open semifinal?

To answer that question, we're going to look at the same data table that we used to evaluate Nadal on Monday.

Roger Federer On Clay
Category 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005
Pct of 1st Serve Pts Won 80% 77% 75% 79% 74% 74% 74% 73%
Pct of 2nd Serve Pts Won 56% 56% 57% 57% 56% 54% 57% 58%
Pct of Service Games Won 91% 88% 87% 90% 84% 84% 85% 85%
Pct of Service Pts Won 71% 70% 68% 70% 67% 65% 67% 67%
Pct of 1st Serve Return Pts Won 28% 33% 35% 33% 37% 39% 37% 39%
Pct of 2nd Serve Return Pts Won 50% 47% 50% 50% 55% 50% 55% 53%
Pct of Return Games Won 25% 24% 26% 26% 32% 30% 33% 35%
Pct of Return Pts Won 37% 38% 41% 40% 44% 42% 42% 44%
Games Lost, First Four Rounds
Of French Open
54 36 38 65 46 38 44 37

There are two interesting aspects to this table:

  1. It really is incredible how little percentages change from year to year. This goes for just about any player, not just Federer. The difference between the status quo and a surge or collapse in the rankings is a couple of percentage points. As with Crash Davis and cans of corn, the difference between a huge success and a tough life of qualifiers is winning an extra point for every 10-20 you play.

  2. Despite that, Federer's game has seen a relatively stark shift through the years. He leans more on his serve now than he used to, and he wins more service games and points now than he ever has. Considering he is supposed to be "past his prime," that is impressive. At the same time, however, his success in the return game has lacked. He is winning about 4 percent more of his service points than he did in the 2005-08 range, but he is losing 5 to 7 percent more of his return points and 9 to 11 percent more of his first-serve return points. You can push him around a bit more than in previous years, but if he can dictate the point, he is as good as ever.

The return struggles could make him vulnerable against a player like Juan Martin Del Potro, who very much replicates Federer's percentages: he has won 69 percent of his service points and 42 percent of his return points on clay this year. Then again, seeing Del Potro across the net might relax Federer. Del Potro seemed to briefly get the upper hand, head-to-head, in 2009; he took Federer to five sets at that year's French Open (highlights here and here), won a five-set final at the U.S. Open, then won a three-setter at the ATP Tour Finals. But since Del Potro's return from a wrist injury, Federer has owned the series. In the last two years, he has won all 11 sets they have played. They have not faced off on clay since the 2009 French Open, but in this match the burden of proof on not as much on Federer to show he can find fifth gear so much as it is on Del Potro to prove he actually belongs on the same court as his Swiss opponent again.

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Novak Djokovic vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Speaking of burden of proof ... hello, Jo-Willie Tsonga. You've finally advanced to a French Open quarterfinal. And your opponent, the world No. 1, has not been at the top of his game. This might be your best opportunity to advance deep into the second week of your home slam. But Djokovic pretty much shut you down in Rome this year, dominating your second serve and neutralizing your power. The second week of the tournament has seen colder weather and heavier, slower clay. That is a problem for power players like you. Can you take advantage of the opportunity you have given yourself?

As a whole, Tsonga has acquitted himself well against Djokovic through the years -- he led the overall series, 4-2, until 2010 and has still managed to win two of five matches since then. But clay is not his best surface, and he struggled to advance past Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round. He has an interesting opportunity here, but Djokovic gets the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

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