Sunday, March 18, 2012

Federer's Backhand the Key to Victory Over Nadal

Lot's of lingering thoughts regarding Roger and Rafa's 28th tilt, so I figured I'd take to the blog to express some of them.

Federer's win—his first on an outdoor hardcourt vs. Nadal since 2005—was made possible for two reasons:

1. His backhand was amazing today.


2. Nadal refused to flip the script.

Let's start with the backhand. I've long felt that the key stroke in any Nadal-Federer match is Roger's backhand. It's no secret, pretty much everybody agrees with that, even Roger and Rafa. What's usually so fascinating about their matchups is the way that each works to either hide or expose Roger's backhand, and to what degree.

But yesterday, try as he did (especially with the serve), Nadal found nothing to expose when it came to Roger's backhand. Federer used the shot eloquently, whipping it cross-court, even on Nadal's nastiest of slice serves on the ad-side, all afternoon. I think Federer's day was actually made a lot easier by the fact that Nadal kept going there. Perhaps Nadal just assumed that he'd break it down eventually, but I think he really lost the match when he didn't adapt his game to what was really happening out there.

Nadal's reluctance to deviate from the script probably made it a lot easier for Federer than it might have been. Think about it: Somebody serves to your backhand 95 percent of the time, even though you are in the zone. What could be better than that?

Am I being naive here? To me it seemed like Rafa needed to try something different in this match, yet he never did.

He even alluded to his problem after the match, commenting that his topspin/kick serve was not getting up as high on Federer due to the conditions, wind, etc...

Was this just a poor match played in tough conditions, or was it further proof that Rafa is a better active player than a reactive one? Is Rafa a problem solver? We know he's a problem creator, but based on his work against Djokovic over their last seven matches, there's some pretty compelling evidence that he's not making the highest marks when it comes to solving.

(Who could blame him for being stubborn, really, or sticking with what has worked so often?)

Federer was able to do two things that he usually isn't able to do with his backhand against Nadal yesterday: First, he hit over the cross-court ball and stretched Rafa out by creating some sick angles. Second, he used the down-the-line consistently, which kept Nadal honest, and probably more importantly, kept him from unleashing his fearhand.

This was the perfect match for Federer in terms of the backhand, and it reminded me of his 2011 World Tour Finals victory over Nadal when he also did lots of damage from that side. Also, I can't help wondering if going three sets with Thomaz Bellucci in the fourth round helped Federer get the reps that he needed on one-hander.

If it did, would it be possible for Federer to pay Bellucci more than he earns on the ATP tour to be his practice partner?

Either way, yesterday's 28th Nadal-Federer match was, like all of them have been, a fascinating encounter that highlighted tennis in all its chess-like glory. All of the elements that fascinate were present: the quest for each player to find each other's backhand, the constant battle for court positioning, the never-ending search for short balls to pulverize, the finer points of shot selection, as in where to put the ball, with what spin, and how often? and of course, the ability of each player to deal with mother nature.

Everything was in play yesterday, but somehow Nadal seemed to miss the big thrust of the match. Federer's backhand was on fire, and Nadal should have left it alone for a while in the hopes that it would have cooled off by the time he resumed his exploitation of it.

Moving forward, does it mean that Federer's backhand has turned a corner? Perhaps all these years of getting worked over by Nadal's buggy-whipped topspin drives is helping him improve?

Will he be able to use the shot in the future with more versatility, power and consistency like he did today?

Could this be yet another twist—another evolution so to speak—of the rivalry?

Hard to say, but easy to think and write about.


  1. Great analysis on the match. And perhaps you're right--Nadal constantly pounding shots at Federer's backhand may just have forced Federer to improve in this area. I know it's way too early to say that Federer has solved all his Nadal problems, but wouldn't it be interesting if the whole "always hitting to Roger's backhand thing" didn't work as effectively anymore...

    1. Federer will have trouble duplicating the success he had on Saturday, but it's certainly not out of the question that the rivalry will move forward with Federer being less overwhelmed and perhaps even more aggressive from the backhand wing.

      Nadal can play a lot better than he did, so their next match promises to be a massive test for Federer. I think Rafa was a bit off in terms of intensity on Saturday.

      To see him let that dropper at set point and net that forehand at 30-30 4-5 in set 2 was just plain surprising.

      Another profoundly interesting edition of the rivalry, to say the least.

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  3. Federer also attacked Nadal's backhand fearlessly and Nadal had quite a few errors off this wing. I think the Novak?Nadal matches have been analyzed a little bit. Authur Ashe was once quoted" you attack an opponents weakness enough it just might become his strength. Federer has Annacone to help power up his game and soon enough Federer will maintain his winning form. Federer's backhand is sometimes lethal when he's on.

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