Hemlock. A crowbar to the knees. Locusts. To most tennis fans, these might seem like the only ways to topple Roger Federer, the three-time defending U.S. Open champion and arguably the greatest tennis player of all time. Federer has already taken two Grand Slam championships this year (the Australian Open and Wimbledon, where he has won five consecutive titles). He has compiled 11 for his career, just three shy of the men's singles record held by Pete Sampras.
Still, though Federer has strung together another dominant season, he is not completely unbeatable. The Swiss maestro has lost six matches this year, including yet another defeat to second-ranked Rafael Nadal in the final of the French Open, the only Grand Slam title to elude him. As the U.S. Open gets under way, we offer five perfectly legal ways to take down Roger Federer.
1. Defense. Every player on tour would love to smack more winners than Federer. But trying to outshoot the game's most graceful shooter is like trying to out-jump Michael Jordan in his prime. It just won't happen. "The one common thread running through his losses is that all those guys play spectacular defense," notes Jim Courier, a former top-ranked player in the world. "What would be winners against most players aren't, and that can frustrate Roger." Nadal, no. 3 ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia, and Argentine Guillermo Canas, who have all recently beaten Federer, can catch up to his trickiest shots. Canas has ousted Federer twice on hardcourt, the surface on which the U.S. Open is played. "My strength is the way I defend the point," says Canas. "Guys feel a little more uncomfortable if they have to hit an extra ball." Even those barely human guys, like Federer.
2. Backhand. As graceful an artist as he is on the tennis court, no true artist paints with two hands. Federer's fluid, one-handed backhand attracts admirers, but it also offers a small opening for his foes. "You have to hit a heavy serve above his backhand," says Nick Bollettieri, whose famed Florida tennis school has spawned a slew of stars, from Andre Agassi to Maria Sharapova. "No matter how good you are one-handed, that does cause some problems." High shots to the backhand will get Federer reaching, which opens the court a bit for your return. "Hopefully, he won't be able to dominate that next shot," says tennis Hall of Famer Stan Smith. Against Federer, that's about all you can ask for.
3. Show Your Emotion. We all know tennis players are supposed to exhibit good manners. But when fighting Federer, it's a good idea to ditch the game's unwritten rules. "I'm talking first point, first set, Roger makes an unforced error, pump your fists and shout," says Courier. "Just to let him know you're there to win, not just to play close. Sometimes you have to rattle the cage." Like Tiger Woods in golf, Federer preys on his opponent's reverence for him. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the player who has had the most success against Federer, Nadal, is the purveyor of the flying fist-pump. Says seven-time Grand Slam champ Mats Wilander: "Be a bit of an a--hole out there."
4. Bore Him. Federer is a pleasure seeker, the best ad-libber in the game. No one loves hitting the perfect angles on the move off your drop shot, your lob, your slice more than him. "So stymie him by boring him to death," says Courier. "Play every single ball to the same corner, over and over. Deny him the pleasures of the sport." Another tedium tactic is to take extra time between points. "He's a rhythmic kind of player," says ex-pro Barry MacKay, a veteran TV commentator. "He likes to have things moving along at a certain pace. It's like a batter stepping out of a batter's box against a great pitcher. You're saying, 'Hey, this guy is not in charge now.'"
5. The Power of Positive Thinking. Federer wins many matches in the locker room. Current pro David Nalbandian, who once held a five-match winning streak against Federer early in their respective careers, and most recently beat him at the 2005 Masters Cup in Shanghai, explains the pre-match body language of many players. "It's aw sh--, I'm playing Roger, I'm out," he says. Many players just want to give him a strong test; that's one reason they lose the match. "Every time I get on the court, I believe I can beat him," says Nalbandian. "Not enough guys think that way."
There it is, a recipe to derail the world's best. Easy, right? Ha. Bollettieri offers a more sure-fire tip. "Take him to a restaurant," he says, "and put a little hot tamale in his food."