In Federer-Nadal Rivalry, Has the Federer Backhand Become a Weapon?

If tennis fans thought Roger Federer’s Australian Open win over Rafael Nadal was a fluke in an otherwise lopsided head-to-head, Federer’s devastating victory over Nadal this week at the Indian Wells Masters was a clear message that the AO won’t be a one-off for his 2017 season.

In his straight-set desert victory, Federer needed just a little over an hour to get into the quarterfinals. Giving no break points to Nadal while converting 4 of 5 break point opportunities himself, Federer made surviving the “Group of Death” look easy. Even Nadal had to acknowledge that he was outplayed.

With two consecutive victories over the Spaniard that has had the upperhand so often in the past, everyone is asking how, at the age of 35, has Federer seemed to turn the tables?

Many, including Chris Clarey of the New York Times and Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract, have pointed to Federer’s backhand as a key ingredient to his new-found success against Nadal. In the past, Federer’s single-handed backhand would struggle to handle the extreme height and spin of Nadal’s serves and rally shots. But, in his matches against Nadal this year, his backhand has been more of a weapon than a weakness.

What exactly has changed?

A look at the trends at their Australian Open meetings from 2012 on can help to answer this question (see videocast above). First, if we look at the speed of the Federer backhand we see that it has increased significantly from 2012 to 2017. This is true for both the serve return and rally backhands. For the backhand on serve return, Federer’s median speed has increased from 102 kph in 2012 to 106 kph in 2017. The gain is even more considerable for his backhand in rallies, where the median increase was from 111 kph to 120 kph over the same time period.

We can also see a shift in the characteristics of Federer’s backhand when we look at net clearance. Since 2012, at the Australian Open, Federer’s backhand on serve return against Nadal has decreased by nearly 25%. On backhands in rallies, the decrease over the same period has been 15%.

All together this tells us that Federer has been hitting harder and flatter on the backhand against Nadal in 2017 than he had in their head-to-head in the past 5 years. But how?

One explanation is that Federer has gone away from the defensive slice by stepping in and taking the backhand earlier. Stats from the Tennis Abstract support this conclusion. If we compare the 2014 Australian Open semifinal to the Indian Wells Round of 16 match, the frequency of Federer’s backhand slice is down 50%.

Obviously the benefits of this more aggressive strategy weren’t unknown to Federer 3 years ago. It just seems to have taken some time to put it into execution. Whether we can attribute the change to the addition of Ivan Ljubicic, the switch to the bigger racquet, an increasingly relaxed game perspective, or something else is still a matter of conjecture.