One Hand Tied Behind His Back

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 /by

RaaMELBOURNE—Roger Federer has been told by a few of us pundits in recent years that he should try to develop a two-handed backhand to counter the ground stroke power of his younger, double-fisted rivals. He’s even listened to the advice every now and then, including at this year’s Australian Open. Late in his third-round match with Ivo Karlovic, Federer threw up a topspin lob with two hands. Not surprisingly, considering the opponent, it didn’t work out. Karlovic put it away easily. End of that experiment.

Watching Federer today against one of those younger double-fisted rivals, Juan Martin del Potro, I had the opposite feeling. I felt like it was Federer’s one-handed backhand that elevated him above del Potro, and that allowed the 30-year-old not just to hold his own but to stay a step ahead of the 23-year-old. Would Federer really have been as successful against the huge-hitting, but not versatile, Argentine if he had tried to go missile to missile with him from the baseline? Various commentators today called his dissection of del Potro a “clinic.” I agree, and would encourage any junior player trying to decide between a one-hander and a two-hander to get a tape of this match. You might, if you're thinking long term, come away wanting to drop that second fist off the racquet.

Federer didn’t mention his backhand specifically in his press conference, but it was at the heart of his first answer. He was asked how important it was for him to “put down a marker” early in the match and show that “he wasn’t intimidated by [del Potro] in the early exchanges.”

Federer ignored the “marker” idea, as well as any talk about intimidation. He said, instead, that he was hoping to get off to a good start and hold serve, and that he was happy that he “was able to mix it up well and control the ball.” He said he felt confident right away, “and that helped me use all aspects of my game.”

“Mix it up.” “Use all aspects of my game.” These are two terms for the same thing: Federer’s variety, which he stressed because that’s what separates him from a more one-dimensional player like del Potro. He knew that he didn’t want to slug with him, and that keeping him from getting into a baseline groove, the way the Argentine did in their U.S. Open final three years, was going to be key. Federer showed how much he wanted to change the pace when he threw in a few early forehand drop shots, continuing a play that had worked well against his last opponent, Bernard Tomic.

Aside from that specialized shot, what allows Federer to mix it up in the first place, and to talk about having “aspects” to his game, is his one-handed backhand. As it does for the dwindling number of players who use it, the shot allows him to be more natural in more parts of the game than a two-handed backhand would. Even at the professional level, it’s hard to find a two-handed player with a flawless slice, or an instinctive net game—Andy Murray is probably the closest, and even he doesn’t typically use the slice to attack. (Murray and Tomic have two-handed backhands, but one-handed mentalities. Maybe that's the future, or a future?)

Through the first set, Federer tried different things with his backhand. He hit the slice that he curls under and gets to sit up, so that it hangs in the air and gives his opponent little pace to work with. He hit the low one down the line that bites and kicks away. Both were effective against the 6-foot-6 del Potro. His height obviously makes bending for low balls difficult, and reaching out to hit balls tailing way from him even tougher. And like a lot of two-handed power baseliners, del Potro feeds on pace. He’s not as good at creating his own on the backhand side, and he netted a few balls off Federer slices.

You’ve probably heard all of that before. But Federer also used his backhand in a not-as-obvious way today, one that’s helpful for someone who is constantly facing younger rivals—he used it to give himself time. Even more than normal, Federer worked the points so that he could backpedal into his backhand corner and hit a forehand, which he likes to use to wrong-foot the big man. Up 5-4 in the first set, at 15-all, Federer skipped back for an inside-out winner, and then did it again for an inside-in winner to earn double set point. It was the biggest moment of the match; del Potro double-faulted on the next point. Federer had a lead he never gave up.

The forehand is the killer, but the shot that often gives him the chance to get over for it is his backhand. On a few occasions today, Federer floated a slice deep to del Potro’s backhand and looked for the inside out forehand from there. Late in the match, this combination resulted in a particularly brilliant inside-out winner that Federer hit to his right while he was in the air and sailing toward his left. If he had hit a typical two-handed backhand drive to set it up, he wouldn’t have had the time to get there.

Del Potro made for a striking contrast with Federer. Like any top two-handed player, del Potro can do more with his return than Federer (though the one-hander does have the benefit of keeping you from going for too much on your returns, something you see from a lot of players today). But it limits the Argentine, too. On a crucial point when he was trying to get back in the second set, del Potro smacked a forehand down the line that put Federer on the run. But he wasn’t comfortable following it in, and when Federer floated the ball back deep, del Potro had to start the point again from scratch. The net game is an aspect that he doesn’t really have.

No style of shot is without its flaws, and Federer's backhand has an important one: It hurts him against his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal. But that's not who he was playing today. There was one final way that Federer used his one-hander against del Potro, and it added insult to injury. At the start of the third set, he carved under a backhand return and sent it skidding at a short angle. Whether he meant it to be a drop shot or not, that’s what it became. Del Potro couldn’t catch up, and Federer had the last break he would need. Drop shot returns: Call it one more aspect of the one-handed backhand, and one more way Federer is foiling his younger rivals.

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