A Shot Heard Round the World

Thursday, June 13, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

It may pain fans of Roger Federer’s elegant, classic game, but the enduring image of this particular time in tennis probably will be that of Rafael Nadal, having backpedalled all the way into his backhand corner, striking a vicious inside-out forehand that rockets past his opponent—no matter how far back or out of position Rafa is.

The shot lands for a clean winner for a good reason that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Nadal’s power, or his opponent’s defensive skills (or lack thereof). For Nadal’s opponent can’t concede the down-the-line shot—in reality, the “inside-in” forehand—by anticipating the inside-out, because Nadal can hook that inside-in savagely, and the distance that shot has to travel is much shorter, which effectively takes time away from the opponent.

As far as Nadal goes, this is Tennis 101. But I dwell on the details because it wasn’t that long ago that this tactic was nearly unheard of. Players once chose to “run around the backhand” mainly to protect that weaker wing, and that tactic is as old as the hills. Interestingly, at one time it was much more common in the rec game, simply because you could only do so much to hide the backhand at the pro level. But today, players step around the backhand as a strategy—as a means of employing the signature shot of this era, the power forehand. And they build entire games around it.

The evolution of strategy, tactics, and technique is never entirely cut-and-dried, and it doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye. But if you count a decade as the equivalent of a generation (that’s more or less the productive period of any player), the inside-out forehand is barely one generation old. While Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier were pioneers of the shot, their peers (think John McEnroe and Pete Sampras, respectively) didn’t embrace the technique, and not just because they had adequate backhands. (Sampras in particular had a wonderful forehand that he chose to employ in a traditional way.) It was a matter of mindset.

Ironically, the road that led to the current infatuation with the inside-out forehand probably didn’t begin on clay. It took shape back in the mid-1980s, well before Wimbledon slowed down the grass, when the powers-that-be decided that spectators were more interested in watching rallies than serving exhibitions, or even the serve-and-volley duels that so many sentimental fans recall so fondly today.

At the time, the U.S. was still the dominant force in the game in tennis, and it hosted a much larger share of significant events. Thus, the hard-court game conspicuously overshadowed clay-court tennis, if not the granddaddy of them all, Wimbledon’s annual grass-court shootout. It was the slowing of the hard courts that spelled the death knell for the well-balanced, classic game, as well as serve-and-volley tennis.

In this, Nick Bollettieri’s eponymous tennis academy played a leading role. It’s no accident that Courier, who’s as close as you can come to the “godfather of the inside-out forehand,” was a Bollettieri protégé. What’s even more significant is that countless dozens of players from all over the world lived the Bollettieri experience, and many of those who didn’t go on to have pro careers became de facto proponents of the sensibility.

The renaissance of the French Open in the 1980s and the more recent rise of the European clay-court circuit accelerated this ongoing process. Two other factors that played into the trend were the decline of fast indoor carpet in favor of indoor hard courts, and the well-publicized slowing of Wimbledon’s grass. As we approached the present-day surface uniformity, it became pretty clear—if not always acknowledged or stated—that if all conditions are equal there must be a preferred style, even if the nature of the game and the role of the psyche in success ensured there would always be outliers.

Given that the forehand is generally the stronger side for any player, it became the shot on which most players built their games. It used to be that teaching pros preached well-roundedness, but as traditional surfaces slowed and attacking tennis (serve-and-volley) died, the essential wisdom of attacking, and the desire to attack, were impulses more or less forced underground—channeled into this increasing tendency to build not just a game but a winning strategy and offensive capability into the forehand.

We haven’t arrived at quite the same point in the women’s game, probably for the same reason that the serve never played a towering role, either (until Serena Williams came around). Most women just don’t generate enough power to overwhelm with a single shot. But I can see that changing over the coming years, if Williams and Maria Sharapova are the models.

In any event, once players began to load up on the forehand, the beauty of the inside-out shot combined with the inside-in option became obvious—and irresistible. It also underscores how much more adaptable the forehand is than the backhand. Can you imagine building a game plan on directional play with the backhand?

The ultimate result and personification of these ideas and trends is Nadal; it’s almost like he’s a caricature created to illustrate the value of a game anchored in a savage forehand and backed-up by great strength and fitness. History has shown us that certain men seem to have been created expressly to master the challenges of their times—think Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King Jr.—and it’s that way in sports, too. And that helps explain the success those men and women experience, and why they come to be seen as representative.

As for Federer, don’t worry about that old campaigner. While the Wimbledon grass has been slowed down, the defending champion’s game is particularly well-suited to the turf. Wimbledon is still the event at which surface and a player’s ability (or lack thereof) to adapt can prove useful—or detrimental. But we’ll leave that for another time. Let’s just say that while Roger is more old-school than his pal Rafa, he’s still got a pretty wicked inside-out forehand himself.

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