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WIMBLEDON, England – “Times have changed,” said Roger Federer this week as he looked back on his early days at Wimbledon.
Serve-and-volley was the rule, not the exception, for men back then. Points were shorter, but the shots were often slower. Modern string and racket technology and modern training methods have helped all professional players generate more speed and spin from extreme positions, and no shot illustrates the shift better than the one that 39-year-old Federer made popular over the course of his 23-year professional career Career.
It’s best known as a squash shot, in part because Federer played squash in his youth, and it’s a sweeping forehand slash, typically from an open stance.
It’s a spectacular shot to see and, as Federer once told me, “a very funny shot.”
But it’s usually not good news when you need to use it.
“Honestly, it’s your last resort,” said Mackenzie McDonald, a 26-year-old American. “Maybe your only option.”
But in tennis, players adapt to the challenge and the risk. With the acceleration of professional tennis they have created new avenues of defense, and the squash shot has become a staple over the years, perhaps even more so among women than men.
“To me, this is a sign of the Fed’s influence on the whole sport,” said Brad Gilbert, ESPN analyst and former top five player, referring to Federer.
Barbora Krejcikova, a versatile all-court player, used the squash shot extensively and excellently on clay in her surprise run to the French Open last month. The French veteran Alizé Cornet won an acrobatic match point in the first round of Wimbledon against Bianca Andreescu, who also likes the squash shot.
On Friday, Ons Jabeur, perhaps the most cunning of all new female stars, used it on the match point in her third-round win against Garbiñe Muguruza on center court. Muguruza, a relentless batsman, hit a backhand with authority. Jabeur stretched to her right and hit a forehand cross-court to get back into a rally that she eventually won.
“So many players are doing it now,” said ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, a two-time Grand Slam individual finalist and former Fed Cup captain. “It looks great and is effective most of the time because it’s a tough, good slice and stays low. It’s an additional shot. It’s definitely one that I didn’t have and one that I believe my generation didn’t have. But it’s a way of keeping the point, and most of the time it works. “
Players also use it as a tempo change passing shot. Anastasija Sevastova made many demands in her victory over Elena Rybakina in the quarter-finals of the Eastbourne International turf last month. Rybakina repeatedly made volleyball mistakes next to the shot.
“It throws the players off guard,” said McDonald. “I feel like hitting a volley from a slice is more difficult than hitting a topspin ball.”
The forehand slice has been around since the beginning of lawn tennis. It’s the best way to hit a forehand dropshot, of course, but it has also long been the preferred way to get close to the net. The forehand slice stayed low and often slid away from the opponent, making it difficult to hit a solid pass, especially with the wooden clubs and gut strings of yore.
But the racket frames are now carbon fiber weapons, and most importantly, the strings are made of polyester, which allows players to cut the ball massively even in imbalance and still generate the spin necessary to drop the ball at a height at Net Rusher’s feet with topspin. The technology can also help them hit a lower, firmer slice with both the backhand and forehand.
“Good luck hitting this full-length gut with a gut string and a wooden bat,” Gilbert said of the squash shot. “You do that once for Christmas.”
Although pros in Gilbert’s era usually praised from this extended position, in the past players used a version of the squash shot. Australian greats Roy Emerson and Rod Laver occasionally defended with a cut forehand. Paul Annacone, a former top 20 player who coached Federer, said he remembered Swedish pro Mikael Pernfors hitting forehand slices on the run in the 1980s and early 90s.
But Pernfors was an outlier. The difference now is how much more solid the shot feels and looks and how well it can be controlled. Even with enormous club head speed and with the need to sometimes adjust the forehand grip to the stretch.
“Every time I hit it, I’m amazed that it actually stays in,” said Federer once.
The surprise factor has clearly subsided and skeptics have become believers.
“When I first saw the Fed doing this, I thought it would only work for a genius like him,” Gilbert said. “But after seeing Daniil Medvedev and so many others using it, I had to reevaluate it. It works a lot better than I thought and it’s the poly strings that allow players to do that tomahawk swing and still be able to hold the ball and keep it on the court. It’s an even harder slice than the one-handed backhand. “
Gilbert sees players use it to reconfigure points, transforming an extreme defensive position into a more offensive position.
“I’m cured, it works,” said Gilbert with a laugh. “You see guys who control a point suddenly ask, ‘What just happened?'”
Gilbert said he wasn’t convinced about another new popular punch, the “tweener” between the legs, which goes back to the net and which the player often uses after tracking down lobs.
“It looks brilliant, but I still don’t think it’s as effective as throwing a praise or walking around it,” he said. “But the squash shot is much more practical. I think it’s here to stay. “
McDonald, a former UCLA star amid a resurgent season, has practiced with Federer many times and has even traveled to Dubai to practice.
“In practice, it’s funny because he’s always playing and working on these recordings that people get excited about,” said McDonald. “He always practices those manual skills that inspire you. When you see him hitting a squash shot or a drop shot winner on a return, he is actually practicing these things, sometimes just for fun. But that’s why he came up with these recordings over the years, because he’s always trying things out. In this regard, he’s different from a guy who only hits a few fore and aft hands in practice. He’s constantly improving his hand skills. “
But while the rise of the squash shot will be part of Federer’s legacy, McDonald said his inspiration for making it part of his arsenal wasn’t actually Federer. It was Steve Johnson, a 31-year-old American player who is currently ranked 74th in the world.
“I might have used it in college, but on tour you try to find that one percent difference, and that squash shot is maybe part of that one percent,” said McDonald. “Stevie Johnson was one of the guys who did it really well. I’ve seen him hit dart-like winners from it. If you see that, you want to do it too. “
This is how it goes in tennis with times and tactics.