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Sometimes the best way to describe something is to see it in action.

In the following video, observe how Federer wins the two points during in the time period 1:40-2:14. These two points are an indication of the Edberg effect.

Our eyes tell us that Federer is an ice-skater: he glides over the tennis court with the precision of a pastrami slicer. His shots are well varied. First point: he comes in off a strong cross-court backhand drive. Second point, he comes in off a precise down-the-line forehand rocket. The volleys are precise. The viewer is left to think that tennis is an easy sport. Just hit a big shot, come to the net, finish off the point. Observe how composed Federer is: winning points feels easy. Of course it is not this easy!

When watching Edberg play one felt such easiness was, if not possible, at least viewable. As with Federer. There are many players who make the sport look easy. To deliver a good explanation of what the Edberg effect is, we will focus on five players.

  • Stefan Edberg
  • Roger Federer
  • Magnus Norman
  • Robin Soderling
  • Stanislas Wawrinka

These players are all different – in styles, physique and so on. But they share striking similarities, which are reminiscent of the success that Edberg had.

The Edberg effect

The Edberg effect can be broken down into three basic principles. Our analysis, of course, is just opinion – we accept that what we write is an imitation of reality.

Principle 1 – Remain calm

As Confucius said: life is simple but we insist on making it complicated. At the heart of what made Edberg and Federer extremely successful players, what has propelled Wawrinka into the top echelons of the sport and made him win a Major, what made Soderling defeat Nadal and Federer in Majors and what makes Norman such a good coach is the ability to stay calm regardless of a favourable or unfavourable situation.

Note the disjunction “or” between the two events “favourable situation” and “unfavourable situation”. This is like saying that the player ‘remains the same’ regardless of the situation he is in. Just won a long rally with a spectacular down the line backhand winner? Behave the same way as if you just missed the easiest volley in the world.

How was Federer feeling when he was down two sets to love against Julien Benneteau?

But, when you’re down two sets to love, stay calm. Obviously your friends and family are freaking out. You just play point for point. It sounds boring but it’s the only thing to do.

First instincts tell us that to pump ourselves ‘up’ at any situation. Experience comes from good judgement, which comes from bad judgement. Bad judgements usually comes from a miscalculation in our instincts.

The problem with pumping up is the after-effect. It drains energy away from you. Players who can focus longer are not prone to erratic level drops – it is common to watch a junior win a set 6-1 then lose the next by the same scoreline.

Staying calm is essential. Winning is not easy. Losing however, can be easy. By staying calm you learn to not see winning and losing as two different things – but both as a process with some random outcome that you, the player, helps to determine.

Example: Federer saving 4 set points against Roddick at Wimbledon by being patient and seeing if Roddick had the ability to really kill Federer off.  Here is the Youtube link to the tiebreak. Which player looked more calm when Roddick was 6-2 up?

Example: Wawrinka losing the first set to Ferrer at the ATP World Tour Finals 2013. Wawrinka accepted the difficult battle to come in winning the match despite being a set down and eventually proceeded to win the match. Below is the video of the highlights: see how pumped up Wawrinka remains despite losing the first set.

Staying calm conserves energy. You do not need to be your best to win matches – all you need to do (in most matches) is manage your risk and play to the averages. By staying calm, you raise your average over time.

Staying calm allows you to deal with what the other player is throwing at you – are they trying out tactic X?  Are they targetting my backhand? Where do they serve at 40-40? Suddenly you spot more things.

Staying calm allows you to play a purposefully ambiguous game without losing focus. There are two players who are so good at this that people sometimes forget that they are doing it – Federer and Murray. Murray has tortured opponents for years with his game, as has Federer. Their games are ambiguous in different ways: where as Federer has learned to be aggressive in different ways that take rhythm away from his opponents, Murray has learned to channel in his indifferences to be aggressive in a ‘blunt’ fashion and as a result Murray is less predictable.

Principle 2. Embrace your identity

Edberg had no business slugging away from the baseline, he won and lost at the net. Soderling cannot dream of hitting volleys like Edberg. Wawrinka will never have the Federer’s flexibility, nor will Federer ever be able to consistently generate the power Wawrinka does on his backhand.

Each player has their own unique identity. Even when players model their style on their idols, as Wilander did with Borg, the identity is never the same. That is not to say the style is different – that assertion is subject to opinion.

By embracing your identity, you play the way you know how to play. You understand the procedure well – you know when you’ll win and when you’ll lose. It may seem incredible watching Edberg making approach shots so well timed one felt that the Swede worked as a clock-maker, but the reality is Edberg hit so many approaches and volleys that the experience wasn’t so incredible to him. Similar to how we all marvel when Wawrinka launches a backhand missile down the line: incredible to everyone but Wawrinka has hit that shot enough times for it to be normal service to him.

Federer’s Australian Open 2014 campaign, barring a disappointing to Nadal, was an extreme success. The way he played against Tsonga and Murray was electric – Federer could have played that style all day. Compare it to recent Majors where he has not abided by the 3 principles (the third to shortly come), and you can see how apparent this effect is. For Federer, slugging away at the baseline is more comfortable than it was for Edberg. But Federer is supremely stubborn – and he will always have the desire to go forward and finish points off.

Soderling had similar problems until Norman calibrated his aggression. Soderling was always able to trouble top opponents – see his match in Madrid against Federer in 2006, or the longest 6-1 6-0 defeat to Nadal in Rome 2009, a month before he bested Nadal in Paris. Soderling’s problem was turning up his aggression in critical moments. Norman worked with him to fix this and before Soderling’s career fell away tragically due to illness, he was an extremely dangerous opponent. One sensed that Soderling defined himself in the big moments – Federer made mini-comebacks in their French Open 2010 match but each time a big moment came, Soderling embraced his identity and hit sledgehammers.

Principle 3. Maximise your aggression

Consider the confusing but extremely talented Gael Monfils. Monfils has called himself a ‘rat’ on the court – he chases what he is given. Monfils can also rip forehands with speeds up to 180 km/h.

To Monfils, his aggression is maximised when he is best behaved – when he is pumped up. For Monfils, ‘maximising aggression’ would be to position himself further inside the court, be more aggressive and cut out the clowning around. Implementing these changes may frustrate Monfils, make him feel unfocused or unsure of what to do in the court. Therefore by trying to maximise his aggression, he bizarrely becomes less aggressive. The concept of ‘maximising aggression’ is not trivial.

But it can be seen as follows: to maximise your aggression is to play a style of tennis that incurs minimum cost on your style and imposes maximum cost on your opponents style.

In the following video, Soderling crushes Ferrer in a clay-court match in Sweden.

Upon first impression, Soderling maximises his aggression by hitting the bell as hard as he can. On a closer inspection, see that Soderling anticipates all of Ferrer’s shots. His positioning is tidy. Rarely is he too early or too late to a shot. He hits shots into places that force Ferrer to give back weak replies. This shows how Soderling maximises his aggression: hitting hard but with care and good fitness.

Much is the same with Wawrinka, who did not know how to really maximise his aggression. His 2009 Wimbledon match against Andy Murray is a good example: Wawrinka had the technical capability to match Murray in all departments but fell short in the tight moments. By calming him and giving him direction on the court,  Norman has made Wawrinka a nightmare to deal with: when moments get tight Wawrinka gets better.

Conclusion

To understand the Edberg effect is to understand the similarity in thinking required for Jackson Pollock to paint his messy abstract pieces and Leonardo da Vinci his timed masterpieces. There is a clear philosophy: stay calm amidst all the madness, embrace who you are as a person and maximise your potential. Naturally, these are all easier said than done.

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2 Comments

  1. Amazing insight into the game…

  2. Yet another great article containing illuminating points, easily accessible to more ‘casual’ observers of the sport like myself. I plead with you to write more, by far the best tennis writing focusing on tactics, strategy and philsoophical meta-issies I have seen. In particular your two Federer vs Djokovic pieces were enlightening. Though these less empirically focused pieces are also superb 🙂 .


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