The 2015 season was full of uncertainty and change, but what emerged in that season was one of the most polarizing tactics in tennis history: The SABR.
The 2015 ATP season was one to remember. Novak Djokovic had arguably the greatest season of his career. He won 11 titles, including 3 major championships, 6 Masters 1000 Series, and the ATP Finals. He was truly unbeatable and it was this season that was the culmination of 5 years of dominance.
It was also the year that the majority of tennis fans thought the Federer-Nadal reign over the ATP was beginning to end; Nadal failed to win Roland Garros and was set to enter the worst two-year stretch of his career due to injury (and fell to #10 in the world at one point in 2015. Federer was on a decline as well towards the end of 2015 and ended up falling outside of the top-15 the next year.
Throughout what was a tumultuous season in tennis, one thing emerged: The SABR.
The SABR, or the longer name “Sneak Attack By Roger”, was first implemented in 2015 during a practice session. Federer, always looking for ways to “keep it exciting for himself and the fans”, started to take the ball early during practice, so much so that he was almost on top of the service line once the ball reached him.
“My coach told me, “Why don’t you try that?” because he was always telling me to take the return earlier and that I was too shy to step too far into the court,” Federer told NetJets in 2015.
The return, originally a joke in practice, made its way into matches soon after. His opponents were dumbfounded and fans were raucous with delight as Federer began to pick up serves with a half volley and take the point.
In terms of strategy, it’s genius. Taking the ball that early on a return freezes the opponent, who’s used to having much more time to get set for his next shot in the rally. The use of the half-volley decelerates the speed of the serve as it bounces off of the racket, and shoots back a soft drop shot.
“I’ve used it almost in every country I play in and people now to some extent expect it to happen. It’s really hard to practice because I think it’s a little bit disrespectful to the opponent but at the same time, it’s so much fun to do it! When you fail it’s terrible, when you make it it’s wonderful,” the Maestro said.
Nowadays, it’s barely used as a tactic anymore. Players wonder where it went and fans wish for it to return, but with the amount it was used that year, it’s all but certain that the SABR is in retirement and likely won’t come out of it.
Regardless, it was one of the most polarizing shots in modern tennis history and breathed life into what was a very uncertain time in the sport.