The crowd roars. Roger Federer, a break down in the fifth set and seemingly on the brink of breaking back, whips a ridiculous backhand, powerful and angled to Nadal’s forehand, which he couldn’t pick up.
This is not the Federer we know.
The Federer we know shanks backhands. The Federer we know uses the slice a bit too much. The Federer we know passively blocks back a thundering serve. The Federer we knew used drop shots as a weapon.
That Federer also struggled tremendously against Rafael Nadal. It was easy. “Just some extra top spin to his backhand, no?”. It was that easy. Well, not necessarily easy.
Straightforward. The same formula. Rinse and repeat. There have been times where circumstances have been against Nadal (Playing lengthy matches into the night to play the next day, having one less day for rest, injuries or small hindrances). But Nadal would have a routine win regardless (Australian Open 2014, anyone?). It speaks volumes about Federer’s game, mental and physical.
Various things. Firstly, and I’m not entirely sure about this, I think there’s been a modification to his grip. And more than his backhand, I think it has more to do with his forehand grip. His forehand seems more angled, which I noticed during the Hopman Cup. Whether it’s a modification to his grip is something I’m not very sure of, but there’s definitely been an improvement.
But more than anything, it’s his backhand. What was once seen as a weakness is now on the brink of becoming a dangerously, dismantling-the-opponent level potent weapon. We saw it in the Australian Open. We saw it in Indian Wells. And we’re (with a teeny bit of lesser success) seeing it in Miami.
Why is it so much better? Tons of things. Firstly, it’s how he’s moving and his footwork. He’s been moving better and his footwork is much more calculated and less “lazy”. His right foot leans towards the direction of the ball when he hits the backhand, his overall positioning while hitting the shot is much, much better. This was highlighted by Juan Martin Del Potro in his straight sets loss in the third round of Miami.
Apart from footwork, it’s the style that’s different as well. Federer always added top spin to his backhand. However, since the beginning of the 2017 season, his backhand has been a lot flatter and pack more punch than swing, which is another reason. His backhand, being more flatter has also had a reduction in how wide he swings the racquet forwards. It’s noticeably shorter.
This is not to say that Federer doesn’t play with a top spin backhand. His backhand varies from flat, counterpunch to top spin with an angle. His flat backhand is just a weapon he’s added in his arsenal.
Also, one more thing that’s been instrumental is how close he stands to the baseline. Pre-2017 Federer would hit his backhand behind the baseline. Enjoy the awesomeness.
2017 Federer has been hitting his backhand well within the baseline, sometimes 3-4 feet within the baseline. More awesomeness!
Now this is important because not only is Federer reacting quicker, it also leaves less time for his opponent to react as well. This combined with the extra power and whack means that his opponents are left struggling.
How did this change happen?
I have a feeling Ljubicic has had a huge role. The former Croatian world number 3 was known for his powerful single handed backhand, full of flatness and power, which is precisely what we’re seeing with Federer. Apart from that, better footwork and movement has had a big role. Pierre Paganini, Federer’s fitness coach, was quoted saying that Federer was moving better than ever and “feels like he’s 25” during his injury layoff. This has clearly been the case, as we’ve seen it for ourselves.
Also, Fed has nothing to lose. He’s 35 with practically zero points to defend for the rest of the year besides Wimbledon. He’s enjoying his tennis more than ever, and he’s more confident in his backhand. He steps in takes by it on the rise, no longer worrying about shanks. After all, he’s got nothing to lose.
What does this mean for his game?
He’s won the Australian Open. He completed the Sunshine Double (Indian Wells and Miami) for the third time in his career. He’s 19-1 in the season with the most number of wins, tied with Nadal and only one loss to the Russian World Number 116 Evgeny Donskoy in Dubai. He’s number one in the Race of London by a long way. In short, he’s having one of the best seasons of his life.
His peers are full of praise, and rightfully so. A man his age, dominating the game after a 6 month injury break is miraculous. And doing it by defeating a rival who he’s struggled against his entire life is nothing short of impossible. But the Maestro has found a way to do it, and by winning the first three major tournaments of the year, he’s made himself heard.
However, Federer has cut his clay season short, skipping three masters and deciding to only play the French, which could mean trouble since lack of big match practice could mean trouble. It is to be seen, but for now it’s safe to say he may have a very dominant season, with a shot at World Number one, if we dare to dream.
Let’s hope for the best.