Roger Federer and the History of Tennis Trick Shots

Roger Federer seems to specialize in producing surreal moments. This curling smash prompted Andy Roddick to shake Federer's hand in the middle of their match. This slice backhand caused a disbelieving television announcer to laugh uncontrollably. This recent Gillette commercial, in which Federer twice hit an aluminum bottle off a production assistant's head, has been viewed 6.5 million times on YouTube—even though it's probably an illusion.

But the latest, which occurred during the first round of the U.S. Open last Monday night, was totally sublime. After his opponent, Brian Dabul, hit what looked like a perfect lob, Federer turned his back to the net and took off toward the baseline. He then planted his feet, whipped his racquet downward like a fly swatter, and smacked the dipping ball, which flew between his legs, over the net, and past Dabul for a clean winner.

"You could see on my reaction I couldn't believe it," Federer said at his post-match press conference, after winning in straight sets. His incredulity was a little hard to take—he did, after all, hit the same shot last year.

Federer isn't the only player to try the "tweener" recently. Last week, reigning French Open champion Frencesca Schiavone pulled one off. Afterward, she told reporters, "I hit it hard and well. Not like Roger, but well." World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, whose biceps are referred to in this Nightline piece as "Spanish national treasures", also attempted a between-the-legs shot over the weekend, but dumped it into the net. (He has done it before. Here's grainy proof.) It's not easy, even for the greats.

"You're going to win that point one out of 10 times," said John Whitlinger, coach of the powerhouse men's tennis team at Stanford University. "That's the problem; it's such a low-percentage shot." When Whitlinger played professionally in the 1970s, his contemporaries rarely attempted anything like it. Back then, topspin lobs were still considered exotic.

Hall of Fame tennis writer Bud Collins has covered the sport extensively for half a century. Showmanship, he said, was around long before Federer. Collins told me American Bill Tilden, who dominated the sport in the '20s, used to start service games with three balls in his off hand—with the sole purpose of delivering three straight aces. In the 1963 Davis Cup final, Collins watched Aussie Roy Emerson hit two behind-the-back half volleys—in the same point.

"I think everybody was amazed," said Collins, who believes that 40 years ago, a between-the-legs shot would've been considered hot dogging. "I was amazed. I hadn't seen it before."

In the '70s, Romanian Ilie Năstase popularized a shot that Collins deemed "The Bucharest Backfire." (The name stuck.) The over-the-shoulder wrist flick, effective against lobs, is still in use today. Later in The Me Decade, Argentinean Guillermo Vilas and Frenchman Yannick Noah began employing the between-the-legs shot on a semi-regular basis. (Collins remembers first seeing Noah hit one during a Masters event at Madison Square Garden.)

"My first recollection of it was Noah and Vilas, and I think both those guys claim they were the first," Australian great Fred Stolle, 71, told The New York Times last week. "I think anybody who ever hit it claims they were the first. Even I've hit it in my later years."

In the '80s, German Boris Becker began doing it. So did Argentinean Gabriela Sabatini, whose version became known as "The Sabatweenie." By the time Clinton took office, the ridiculousness torch had been passed to Andre Agassi.

Still, none of these examples quite matches Federer's. "He has perfect timing on it," Collins said. "I don't think it was too hard for him." For anybody else, however, it's complicated—and risky.

"You have to be pretty brave to try that shot," said Sam Winterbotham, coach of the University of Tennessee men's tennis team. "It can go horribly wrong." Earlier this year, Winterbotham's team performed during halftime of a Vols basketball game. In hindsight, tweener rallies probably weren't such a great idea. "A couple times it got a little scary," Winterbotham said. "They caught it a little high, let's say." He had to ignore a fan saying, "Don't do it, you won't have any children."

A protective cup may never be required in tennis, but the sport has become increasingly physical. "It's such a different game from when I played it," Whitlinger said. "Guys are really good athletes now. They're very strong, very fit." Federer certainly fits that description—his strength belies his 6-foot-1, 187-pound frame.

Still, the logistics of last week's shot, no matter how many times you watch the clip, are mind-boggling. Imagine being in Federer's position. To even reach the ball before it bounces twice, you'd need to spin around, run past the baseline, plant your feet, swing as hard as you can, "and then," Whitlinger said, "pray."

Federer will meet Robin Soderling in the U.S. Open quarterfinals Wednesday night. ESPN2's coverage begins at 7 p.m.