While perhaps the most photogenic, Roger Federer’s backhand was the least consistent part of his arsenal. The loopy serve returns and the defensive slices would get picked on by extreme topspin players such as Rafael Nadal. Cut to 2017, and the 35-year-old has turned it into a weapon.
Nadal would target Federer’s backhand by serving down the centre. The left-hander would whip the ball, imparting ridiculous topspin which would make the ball kick up high. Federer, playing from way behind the court, will hit a loopy, slow, short backhand which would eventually set up an easy forehand winner for Nadal.
The backhand remains the target, but Federer is taking the ball early, before it kicks up to the awkward shoulder-height. Hitting the ball on the rise allows him to hit the backhand harder and flatter. He also plays on or inside the baseline and hits the ball deep and down the line, leaving Nadal scampering for position.
While he would try to be aggressive from the backhand before, the racquet head size of 90 square-inches would lead to mishits and shanks and Federer would quickly revert to the defensive backhand slice. According to Federer, the switch to 97 square-inches in 2014 has given him confidence. “I think with the bigger racquet, head size, I’m definitely having an easier time to come over the return, especially, and then to stay aggressive throughout the rally.”
From their first Australian Open meeting in 2012 to this year, the speed of Federer’s backhand against Nadal’s forehand has increased significantly. Federer’s average speed on serve return has increased from 102 kph in 2012 to 106 kph in 2017 and 111kph to 120 kph during rallies. The net clearance on the backhand serve returns has decreased by nearly 25 per cent while in rallies, the decrease has been 15 per cent.
Ivan Ljubicic’s appointment as the coach has also helped Federer. During his playing days, Ljubicic was known to step in and attack high balls to the one-handed backhand. Federer says Ljubicic and former coach Severin Luthi “insisted on a simple concept. ‘Take the ball early especially on return. No one is stronger than you inside the baseline’.”
While the ‘Sneak Attack By Roger’ started out as a bit of fun, it eventually helped Federer reduce the backswing of the backhand. In turn, even the regular return has become a short blocking stroke. Federer also sat out the second half of 2016 during which he practiced stepping in and attacking high backhands and driving the backhand off the return.