French Open 2019: Roger Federer's backhand has struggled against Rafael Nadal's forehand, and may continue to do so
Why does Federer suffer so much with his one-handed backhand on clay when the others don’t? For starters, his backhand is quite different from that of a Dominic Thiem or a Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss likes taking the ball early and on the rise, which is great for quick surfaces but extremely risky on clay given its high (and unpredictable) bounce.
The beauty of Federer's backhand, the grace, the elegance – all of it comes to naught when pitted against Nadal's legendary topspin
As Federer prepares for his first French Open in four years, he is probably dreading the prospect of facing up to Nadal’s forehand
Even when he struggles to get the ball across the net with his backhand, Federer still looks like an artist – a tortured one perhaps, but an artist all the same
The hand arches backwards regally, resembling a painter dipping his brush into his palette before lifting it up to the canvas. The pose is held for a second with the fingertips perched at the highest possible point, as though preparing to unfurl a magic trick. The racquet carves downwards in one sweeping motion, looking all set to put the finishing touches on a masterpiece. And then…the ball limps tamely into the bottom of the net, a rank mishit.
That’s pretty much been the career-long story of Roger Federer’s one-handed backhand against Rafael Nadal’s forehand on clay. The beauty of the shot, the grace, the elegance – all of it comes to naught when pitted against the Spaniard’s legendary topspin. Every time Federer and Nadal have played on dirt the same anticlimactic sequence of events has been repeated over and over again, as though intended to throw Federer’s fans into a cyclical loop of agony and despair.
No single shot has ever been scrutinized as much as Federer’s backhand – at least not with specific reference to how it holds up against a particular opponent on a particular surface. But Federer’s peculiar struggles have had an unintended effect too: they have inspired an urban legend that is, in reality, far from the truth.
When a young player plays a televised match for the first time and you see that he has a one-handed backhand, you automatically assume he will always struggle on clay. The mental picture of the Nadal forehand pummeling the Federer backhand is so deeply ingrained in our heads that it’s hard to imagine a single-hander ever achieving much success on clay.
Thankfully, every now and then we have the likes of Stan Wawrinka to come along and shatter that myth, if just momentarily. Wawrinka stunned Novak Djokovic and the world with the destructive abilities of his one-handed backhand in the 2015 French Open final, marking just the second instance in the last 14 years of a single-hander winning the clay Major. But that’s a statistical anomaly born purely out of Nadal’s unprecedented dominance in Paris; the single-hander has actually been the weapon of choice for many claycourt specialists, both before and during Nadal’s era.
Gaston Gaudio, the player who won the French Open immediately before Nadal began his reign over Paris, had a one-handed backhand. And at the start of the century, there was a stretch of three consecutive French Opens being won by single-handers – two by Gustavo Kuerten, and one by Albert Costa. Other dirt-ballers in the previous decade like Nicholas Almagro, Albert Montanes and Tommy Robredo were also happy to wield the single-hander to further their ambitions on clay.
That someone like Kuerten had a one-handed backhand while also being celebrated as a claycourt virtuoso, is as good an indication as any that single-handers are not inherently disadvantaged on clay. If anything, as counterintuitive as this may sound, a one-handed backhand actually has a few advantages over a two-hander on a slow and high-bouncing surface.
Clay rewards topspin in a big way, and a one-hander is naturally equipped to exploit that topspin-friendliness more than a two-hander. The exaggerated low-to-high motion coupled with the downward-facing angle of the racquet in a one-hander helps impart more revolutions on the ball than the relatively flat-planed two-handed backhand. More revolutions, more spin, more distance — if the goal of a groundstroke is to use as much of the court depth as possible, then the one-hander is your best friend.
The ramifications of that quality are particularly pronounced on clay because here, the players typically engage in rallies from a few feet behind the baseline. A two-handed backhand can be used to generate topspin too, but the farther back in the court you are, the tougher it is to do so. The one-hander has no such problems; the greater extension of the arm means that it is easy to hit with depth, no matter how far back you are standing.
There is the question of bounce too, of course; how do you deal with a shoulder-height ball without sacrificing pace? The short answer: don’t play against Nadal. The Spaniard has made his claycourt success so routine that it is easy to forget his unique combination of skills is almost impossible to find anywhere else. Not only does Nadal generate more topspin than any player in history, he’s also a left-hander. That’s a deadly double whammy if you’re a right-hander with a one-handed backhand. There’s just no reliable counter to a crosscourt forehand that repeatedly bounces up to your head.
But the majority of the tour’s players are not left-handed. And for a right-handed player, it is virtually impossible to produce anywhere near the amount of spin and bounce that Nadal does, since he would be trying to do it with a backhand rather than a forehand. That’s half the problem solved merely by virtue of humanity’s predisposition to be right-handed.
There could still be a few headaches if you’re facing a right-hander with a one-handed backhand himself, because that shot can generate a fair bit of topspin as noted above. But there are two things that negate that threat: firstly, players with one-handed backhands are rare in the modern era, and secondly, your problems dealing with the bounce would be mirrored at the other side of the net, thus effectively cancelling them out.
The effectiveness of one-handed backhands on clay can be gauged from the fact that even after Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors revolutionised the game in the 1970s with the solidity of their two-handed backhands, that didn’t bring about any immediate change in the winning strategy at Roland Garros. Only one (Mats Wilander) out of the two dominant clay courters in the 80s had a two-handed backhand; the other, Ivan Lendl, hammered his one-handed backhand away to glory, winning three titles on Parisian clay.
Even in today’s era of baseline consistency, players with an affinity to clay aren’t showing any particular aversion to the single-hander — and this, despite the presence of Nadal on the tour. There are 15 players with one-handed backhands in the current ATP top 100, and out of those at least seven — Dominic Thiem, Marco Cecchinato, Stan Wawrinka, Dusan Lajovic, Pablo Cuevas, Philipp Kohlschreiber, and Leonardo Mayer — have had more success on clay than any other surface.
In fact, Thiem is widely considered the heir to Nadal’s clay throne despite possessing the same ‘weakness’ that Federer was saddled with for years. And another single-hander Stefanos Tsitsipas is showing signs of joining Thiem in the short list of challengers to Nadal on clay; the way Tsitsipas’ backhand held up against the King of Clay in Madrid last week was a revelation.
That raises a rather obvious question: Why does Federer suffer so much with his one-handed backhand on clay when the others don’t? For starters, his backhand is quite different from that of a Thiem or a Wawrinka. The Swiss likes taking the ball early and on the rise, which is great for quick surfaces but extremely risky on clay given its high (and unpredictable) bounce. Federer also lacks the raw muscle strength of the younger brigade, and finds it difficult to uncork sufficient power with one hand from the back of the court.
Of course, that has never done anything to diminish the beauty of Federer’s one-hander. Even when he struggles to get the ball across the net with his backhand, he still looks like an artist – a tortured one perhaps, but an artist all the same.
As Federer prepares for his first French Open in four years, he is probably dreading the prospect of facing up to Nadal’s forehand just as much as he did when he was losing one final after another to the Spaniard back in the late 2000s. But this time, he might be spared the misery of the inconvenient matchup by a fellow member of the one-handed backhand club; it is possible, or even likely, for someone like a Thiem or a Tsitsipas to stop the Swiss in his tracks before he gets to Nadal.
And that may not necessarily be a bad thing. If Federer were to lose before a reunion with Nadal, it would allow him to watch in peace as his fellow single-handers deal with the beast in a way that he never could.
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