Federer’s backhand carried him to the title
Roger Federer’s backhand is universally considered his biggest weakness, and a pressure point for his opponents to exploit, in big matches, even when the Swiss is playing high-quality tennis.
If Federer’s backhand falls apart, it disrupts his whole rhythm and confidence behind serve, eventually ending badly for the Swiss. This is a tactic that Djokovic and Murray have employed numerous times, to great effect, against the 18-time grand slam champion.
But it was Rafael Nadal who originally started this trend of going after Federer’s backhand. A rebel teen from Mallorca, Rafael Nadal, first met Federer on court at Miami in 2004 and shocked the tennis world by peppering the Swiss’ backhand, on the way to beating the Word No.1 in straight sets.
Heading into the AO 2017 final, the head-to-head was skewed heavily in Rafa’s favor: Nadal led 23-11, including 9-2 in majors. Nadal’s defense would usually suffocate Roger’s offense, but after a five-set battle, it was Federer who came out on top this time.
Rafa’s signature topspin was as explosive as usual, but Federer’s extremely aggressive backhand tactics took advantage of the fast conditions to create multiple opportunities in the fifth set.
In the past, Nadal’s topspin has had a damaging effect on Federer’s one-handed backhand, one of the most elegant shots in the sport. In their 2014 semifinal, the Spaniard won in straight sets hitting 89 crosscourt forehands to Federer’s backhand, 66 of which won him the point.
In the final, he won less than half of the points where he attacked Federer’s backhand. Rafa’s tactics failed, and remarkably, instead of hurting Federer, he got burned most of the time and ended up on the losing side.
Federer’s backhand was unbelievably potent when compared to any of his matches against Nadal. It wasn’t the only thing he did well, but it, combined with the first serve, was the differentiating factor in the final.
The average men’s match consists of approximately 125 backhands (not including slices), while Federer and Nadal each hit over 200 in yesterday’s five-setter. Federer took his backhand on the rise and hit it full of pace and venom, and with impeccable placement.
Based on the rally shot data accumulated throughout their career, a ranking of players touted as having extraordinary backhands would run as follows – Agassi, Nishikori, Murray, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer as a distant sixth. Interestingly, Federer is the only single-handed backhand on the list and his shot is merely neutral, not a weapon of choice.
In this final, however, Federer’s backhand was 39(!) times more effective than his career average. Against Rafa, no player can pull this off easily and certainly not Federer. In fact, the Swiss has never pulled in positive numbers on the backhand against Rafa at a slam, not even in the matches he won.
The verdict then is clear. Federer’s head was in a good place and his backhand was clean and that helped him get the elusive 18th major that he’d been chasing for 5 years.
Instead of withdrawing into his shell, 35-year-old Federer burst out of his mental blockade and reinvented himself against his arch nemesis in what is possibly his biggest career match to date. Take a bow, Roger Federer.