This question slowly crept into my head as I was watching Roger Federer attempt everything in his power to keep himself from missing against a free-swinging Igor Andreev. Their match was very reminiscient of Federer’s matches against Nadal; lots of heavy topspin forehands aimed at Federer’s backhand over and over again until it “breaks down.” The biggest difference between a Nadal and Andreev is tactics. Nadal has a more definitive and effective pattern against Federer whereas Andreev was thinking/hitting in the moment. But I digress…
Twice in the third set Andreev held an advantage and a set point on his own serve to take a two sets to one lead over the World Number 1. Twice he missed the forehand that got him to that point in the first place. Would those two misses be considered unforced errors? I remember the second one fairly vividly. After a brief exchange, Federer hit a short backhand that Andreev moved in on and tried to hit up the line. He hit the top of the tape instead. Personally, I would not considered this an unforced error by any stretch. It wasn’t a particularly easy set up and chances were that Federer would get the ball back into play, anyway.
Before I dive deeper into Federer and Andreev, I’ll explain my understanding of “errors” in tennis. A forced error is easy to spot. When your opponent is running you around like a rabbit until you’re 10 feet behind the baseline and you can barely get a racquet on the ball, missing into the net in this situation would count as a forced error. But an unforced error is when you’re more or less in control of a point and you end up missing. At least that’s how they seem to count it. I recall several years ago Federer complained how each tournament counted UEs differently. At the Australian Open, he’d hit 10 UEs over the course of three sets, but at Indian Wells they’d count up to 30 errors in two sets.
Like Federer, I have trouble believing that he could make so many more/less errors from one match to another. It’s possible, but it’s rare for anyone. Most players hit a consistent amount of errors to winners depending on their form. Obviously someone like Nikolay Davydenko is probably missing a lot less than he used to, but in the past few months it’s generally the same amount.
My point is that when you look at the men’s game today, unforced errors are extremely rare. Having played tennis myself, I have a slight understanding of the thinking that goes on during a match. When you’re playing someone who seems to get every shot back (like Federer did against Andreev) you want to press more and hit a slightly better shot each time. Did Andreev accidentally miss his forehand? Sure he didn’t want to miss it, but he knew he had to put something extra on it to keep Federer at bay.
Federer ended with 38 UEs while Andreev had 55. I’d say half of those were “mentally forced” errors. Each guy knew he had to hit an extra special shot in order to win some points and that makes a particular shot more risky. When players double fault, is it because they can’t serve or because they know they need to make sure their second serve doesn’t get pulverized (WTA comes to mind). Federer missed several forehands where he tried to go for more than usual because of how well Andreev was playing. Andreev started missing a bunch of forehands in the third set tiebreaker because his thinking was something along the lines of, “I’m playing so well and I just had set points yet it wasn’t enough, so I need to go for even more now.”
Saying Federer got lucky because Andreev choked or got tight or anything along those lines is discrediting both players. Andreev really pushed Federer and Federer did everything he could to edge out the win. Federer legitimately made his own luck by running down everything and forcing Andreev to play one more point and a slightly better point each time. Federer could have buckled, but he kept going and sometimes all you can do is hang with your opponent. When they miss, it’s because you put so much pressure on them that they had to go for more. Even when some players miss sitters, it’s because they fear their opponent that much. The category should be called “mentally forced” errors, as far as I’m concerned.
On a side note, this Andreev match could be a blessing in disguise. I’ve always said it hurts Federer to have easy draws that lead him to a Djokovic or a Nadal, players who aren’t afraid of him and push him. Now Federer is tested as early as round one. He still has some easy matches before more tests, but now he’s battle ready.
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