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The five secrets to Roger Federer's success

MIAMI -- The only career-related area in which Roger Federer has not been terribly lucky is with nicknames. No good one has ever stuck. The closest one, popular in Europe, is Maestro. It means orchestra conductor, or "master."

Sure, the moniker has a bombastic ring. But it's accurate. Just as a great maestro knows how to draw the best out of every instrument, from the massive kettle drum to the little flute, Federer has an absolute command of all aspects of tennis.

There are no holes in Federer's game. No glitches in his execution, no hitches in his technique. These days, everyone is gaga for his one-handed backhand, which once was derided as the source of his poor record against Rafael Nadal -- and, more recently, Novak Djokovic. That criticism has yielded to awe.

Some of Federer's other strengths are not so closely scrutinized, nor are they as volubly celebrated as that rock-solid forehand or precise serve. Here are five major components of his greatness that don't get a lot of attention:

1. Federer always plays within himself

You've seen it more times than you can count. A rally begins, grows in pace and intensity, then one or the other player overcooks his shot. He shanks a forehand up into the cheap seats. Or in the midst of an important point, a player tries for a shot better described as a prayer. Maybe it's a drop shot; maybe it's a backhand drive. Whatever it is, it leaves you wondering, "What was he thinking?"

Federer never overreaches. He never betrays himself. Sure, his level of talent is such that his comfort zone is immense. But this has less to do with talent than mental discipline and concentration -- two things that Federer has in spades. Federer's self-knowledge is profound. He's absolutely true to himself.

Those qualities are especially valuable in this latest phase, in which Federer is playing first-strike, offensive tennis from on or inside the baseline. The strategy demands extremely quick responses and microsecond decision making. Federer rarely makes the wrong decision, which is why it never appears that he's rushing.

2. Federer is the best serial volleyer in tennis

The romance of serve-and-volley tennis just won't die. Fans love to watch offensive tennis and quick action at the net. But few players, even among the growing number who are comfortable attacking, have a second and even third volley comparable to Federer's. That's an important distinction in today's game, because the premium on defense and movement means that a simple one-two serve and put-away shot or approach-and-volley strategy is no longer as deadly as in the past.

Federer's technique off both sides is superb, partly because his anticipation is so keen, and he's so light on his feet. He's spoken often about the wisdom of his decision to skip the second half of the 2016 season. You can bet that a lot of the grunt work involved ramping up his offense, hence the quality of those volley sequences.

"I feel like maybe on the offensive side, overall, I think I'm doing definitely a few things better than I ever have," he said after his win Tuesday against Roberto Bautista Agut.

3. Federer is a master of changing pace

Most spectators are enthralled by Federer's swashbuckling, offensive style these days. But even Federer can't win simply by swarming over his opponent point after point. That's where his rally game comes into play.

One of the most devastating attributes of Federer's volley game is the efficient, effective way he changes the pace of a rally. It can be the equivalent of hitting the reset button, but it's also a tactic.

Prime example: In the fifth game of the second set of his dangerous third-round match against Juan Martin del Potro, Federer reached break point. Delpo blasted a serve; Federer's return set up a power rally. But two shots in, Federer dropped in a feathery backhand that del Potro, in the midst of a comeback and still lacking big-point confidence, anxiously mistimed and drove into the net.

Late-career Federer loves to exploit touch and pace-changing shots. "I did have a little bit of fun," Federer said. "Not as much as I was hoping to. I was hoping to play a few more drop shots or [a] few more chip and charges. I couldn't quite do that like I was hoping to, but we had a few good points."

Only a connoisseur of the rally game would be disappointed after winning in straight sets because the variety in the rallies was unsatisfactory.

4. Federer's passing shot

Attacking players like Federer are celebrated for their offensive skills, but like-minded players, or those who can really bring power to bear, can meet them head on, or even beat them to the punch. Some excellent serve-and-volleyers struggle on defense. But how many players have a volley that can beat Federer's passing shots?

Not many. No attacking player is anywhere near Federer's level as a defender, especially when it comes to hitting passing shots under pressure. Put Federer's facility down to a combination of skill and confidence, as well as his all-around, all-situation composure.

5. The capacity for improvement

Can a 34-year-old, 17-time Grand Slam champion improve? Why would he want to, and how would he go about it? Those were the questions Federer faced last July after he lost to Milos Raonic in the Wimbledon semifinals. We now have the answers. The answers to the first two questions are found in something he said Tuesday.

"That's what I've always tried to explain to people -- that I do feel that I have improved," Federer said. "The game has evolved, and I had to adjust and change. Overall, I do believe I'm probably a better player than I was 10 years ago. It doesn't always translate into results per se, because other guys came up and did extremely well, like Novak, Rafa, Murray and all those guys."

Admitting that he needed to change ought to be enough to earn Federer some kind of medal. This was a guy who was already considered the GOAT by most fans. The way Federer went about embracing the future was simple but risky. He took a lengthy hiatus, during which he recognized that he needed -- and wanted -- to play a more liberated style of tennis. He recalibrated his game to satisfy that desire.

Like a brilliant conductor, maestro Federer is aware of every instrument at his disposal. And he's inclined to use every last one of them.