Tuesday, July 24, 2012


It's got to be mental - he has all the shots, and he's always cool as a cucumber, so if he has a problem with Nadal, it has to be a mental block. Right?


What exactly constitutes a mental block with someone on the tennis court? As it is described by the tennis punditry it is evidenced by one of two things - for some reason a player can no longer execute shots that he normally does against everyone else, or he tries shots against that player that he doesn't try against anyone else, usually because the guy is in his head and he's second guessing himself. But I would argue that these are both really just symptoms of the same problem, and it has nothing to do with psychology.

Federer's technique, like all players, is tied to his tactical patterns and vice versa. And against 999,999 out of a million possible opponents, that confluence of technique and tactics work perfectly. But if you try to change your tactics without commensurate changes to your technique, or change your technique without commensurate changes to your tactics, the two will fall out of sync, and suddenly everything your normally do easily and so well, are the exact things that get you beat. Thus the solution is a proper change to both technique and tactics that create a new paradigm, one that your bete noire does not have an answer to.

As evidence, I offer the third set tiebreak of their Australian Open semi-final this year because in this game, a full display Federer's inability to win critical points with errors that appear to be the result of some mental block vis a vis Nadal, lie the secrets - the lack of technical and tactical synchronization - to this mystery. Tennis is not chess, it is a physical endeavor that requires a set of skills consistently executed to near perfection, in order to maximize your tactics, compete and achieve at the highest level. If there was a God of tennis, it would definitely be in the details - the technical and tactical details.

So let’s take this game point by point:

0-0: That missed backhand volley was the result of coming in off a HIGH backhand up the line (a shot which he ALWAYS lands short) and having to cover the cross court pass, thus he was too deep to finish the point with his first volley and was dead long before he got to net. Had he flattened it out he may have had a chance, but I don’t know anyone who can take a shoulder height backhand approach shot and hit it deep, flat and up the line. 

Had he sliced it deep up the line, which is historically the conventional backhand approach, he'd have more time to close the angles on passing shots, Nadal would have to hit his passing shot from a low height, and somehow get it up and down quickly enough to get past a simple put away volley. The last alternative would be a lob, but again, from a low slice, an offensive lob is difficult to execute, and Federer has a great overhead. As it were, Federer's short topspin approach didn't give him enough time to close the angle on the pass, and because it gets to Nadal quickly, so too does Nadal's passing shot arrive at Federer before he has a chance to reach the optimal position to put away his volley - hence the error.

0-1: Federer goes inside/in on the forehand (not nearly as effective as his inside/out forehand which is flatter and hit at a better angle) and it also lands very short - another common mistake he gets away with against most players because they lack the running cross-court reply on that side. It just so happens that Nadal’s cross-court backhand is one of the best in the game, and Federer’s short reply to it is rife for the drop shot, which Nadal hits well from inside the baseline. But it's important to note that when Federer goes cross court on the forehand from inside or at the baseline, he always puts a lot of top spin on the shot, and it always lands short - this is not something that is reserved for Nadal.

To be effective he also needs a better angle, but at this point he's not doing anything different against Nadal than what he does against everyone. It just so happens that against Nadal it is a high risk play because of his ability to hit passing shots on the run off both wings. So the tactic of taking the short forehand and approaching is correct, but the execution isn't there because Federer isn't accustomed to having to play that shot as close to the line as he would have to in order to be effective against Nadal, who moves and hits on the run better than anyone on tour.

1-2: Federer hits a solid backhand return, but his next two backhands land short (as usual) to Nadal’s forehand, which he easily pulls wider and wider with his next two successive shots. Federer tries to go up the line on the 3rd backhand to break the pattern, but he has problems with his backhand at shoulder height, and it’s even harder to hit up the line. Djokovic, for example, eats that for lunch because he takes that backhand higher, hits it flatter and changes direction a lot better than Federer.

Thus, the issue here is Federer's backhand - aesthetically appealing as it is, it is not as effective against that one shot from Nadal that pulls him to the left and stays up at his shoulders at his preferred court positioning. He could change his positioning and move further back, but that is not a shot a lot of players have - a deep flat backhand up the line with pace that puts Nadal in a defensive position (think Nicolas Almagro or Richard Gasquet). And if he did move back, it would expose him to an inside out forehand, a drop shot or even another cross court forehand pulling him further and further out of position. So the combination of Federer's preferred court positioning, and the technical inability to hit anything but a weak cross court backhand reply costs him this point.

1-3: From a high backhand (not even a forehand) up the line from Nadal, which lands short, Federer still has trouble stepping into the court, even though this time he's going to his preferred cross court backhand. Here the problem is again, that his best backhands are struck at waist level - it's just the way that his shot is produced. And against 99 out of 100 players, he can take that shot on the rise and at waist level at his preferred court position to the baseline and hit a solid cross court shot. But here against Nadal, at that distance from the baseline, the ball remains up around his shoulder - at the same height as the previous backhand…which he also shanked - although not as badly as this one. 

Again, Federer could move back and wait for the ball to come into his optimal strike zone, but that alters his positioning and leaves him vulnerable to a lot of things. He could also step further into the court and hit more of a half-volley, but that's one of the hardest shots in tennis, and even the great Federer would have difficulty picking up the right point of contact and still hit it with pace and direction. Particularly difficult against a player who has been recorded as putting the most spin on the ball in the history of the game (according to this tennisplayer.net presentation
). Those numbers alone ought to dispel the myth that the problem is mental - it is clearly a physical challenge, and one that most players have against Nadal, not just Federer.

1-4: Federer is passed off a shallow cross court forehand - it’s important to note that unlike his forehand approach up the line which he hits flat, this one he comes over to keep it in the court, but is easily passed with Nadal’s crosscourt backhand, which I’ve already indicated is one of the best in the game. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Federer hit a flat forehand crosscourt - particularly as an approach - it's just a shot that he doesn't have. Complicating this shot is that the return from Nadal is a mishit that bounces on the center service line - either of which is very hard to deal with, and together nearly impossible to hit an optimal shot. Finally, the previous approach to the backhand elicited a backhand up the line - which you can see Federer lean towards slightly to cover, but Nadal trips him up and goes cross court.

The real question is tactically why Federer chooses to approach on this at all? The answer is that it's part of the patterns of play that he executes almost by rote. Most all-court players taking a forehand inside the baseline will approach the net no matter what - even if it's not optimal to do so - it just doesn't work out here for Federer, but this decision to approach is not unusual. In fact the problem with this decision is that it is too "usual". Despite the opponent and/or the special conditions of this particular shot coming at him, he doesn't alter his playing pattern. Because he doesn't do anything differently (not because he does - as you would expect if the problem was that his opponent is "in his head"), he gets burned.

1-5: Federer’s wide serve in the deuce is too deep and here you can say he choked a little, because he normally spots that serve much further up in the service court.  But in this case, it's too deep and Nadal hits a solid return - deep and with pace - pushing him well beyond where he optimally likes to hit that forehand up the line. On grass or on a faster surface, that same serve may be effective, and the natural sequence is to approach on the next shot. But on a slow hard court, or a clay court, the serve sits up. Then from Nadal's well struck return, the change of positioning should force Federer to clear the net at a higher level than he normally does, but he doesn't alter his technique and he pays the price with a ball in the net.

This is normally his best approach shot because he’s usually hitting at a right hander’s backhand, typically takes it closer to the middle of the court (because the spotting of the serve is better), and doesn't have to clear the net at as high a point on the approach - if he were two feet to his left, that exact same shot would have easily cleared the net. But since he doesn't alter his technique here, the exact same tactic that he would employ in this situation requires a technique that he doesn't adjust to, and thus the error.

1-6: Federer hits a solid deep return which pushes Nadal back. From this Nadal hits a slow cross court forehand which lands at the service line, and although the point of contact is high, Nadal’s shot is so short and slow Federer can easily step in and go cross court (his best backhand by far), over the lowest part of the net, for a winner. It’s important to note here that the quality of Federer’s return forces Nadal back and elicits a weak reply, versus in a neutral rally where Nadal can step into the forehand, pull him wide and force a weak reply, as he did at 1-2, and generally always does against Federer.

But in this case, a change of tactics (to be more aggressive with the backhand return), with a commensurate change in technique (by coming over the backhand thereby hitting it with more pace and pushing Nadal back) elicits a return that he can easily hit for a winner. Against most players in the past, Federer would simply chip this backhand return and wait for a short reply, either from a player who can't handle a short slice, or at some point later in the natural course of a rally. But against Nadal, he must tactically force himself into control of the point, and alter his technique to do so, to excellent effect in this point. In other words, the winner got an assist from a tactical and technical change in his return of serve.

2-6: Off a short backhand up the line from Nadal, Federer easily hits his backhand at waist height with power and depth, eliciting an error from Nadal. But the key is Nadal’s shot before the approach. It is so short and weak that Federer appears to have no problems with a backhand approach up the line. Not immune to the pressure, Nadal is timid with his shot, and by playing a different shot to Federer's backhand, (and not Federer playing differently than he normally does) Nadal allows Federer to play the way we all expect him to. There is no change in either his tactic of approaching to Nadal's backhand, or the execution thereof, which he is able to do at waist height which is his optimal point of contact. The result - the same as it is against everyone else on tour - a forced error.

3-6: Federer hits (almost) the same shallow cross court forehand as at 1-4, off a backhand return from Nadal. This one Nadal hits flush on the strings, no where near a service line, but even shorter inside the service court. Federer could probably hit this shot with his eyes closed, and it doesn't matter who’s on the other side of the net because the return is short, weak and has a straight trajectory. But again, I reiterate that it is the change in Nadal's execution that elicits the shot from Federer that we see him hit easily with (almost) all other players, and not a change in Federer's tactics or execution.

5-6: This is a great (and classic) one-two combination from Nadal - a solid wide serve in the ad court (which is his favorite) and since Federer’s backhand return is not naturally aggressive (as Djokovic’s for example) he does little to prevent Nadal running around his own backhand and hitting a fairly standard inside out forehand winner. Nothing new from Federer and thus nothing new from Nadal. And while Federer has improved his backhand return, it’s still just an improvement over his chip return, and not nearly the weapon that it would have to be to consistently counter that particular serve from Nadal. Djokovic, on the other hand, devours this return because tactically he is almost always aggressive on the return, and he has the quickness and the racquet head control to execute. Federer clearly does not.

It's a long analysis, but at the end of the day, the elements of Federer's game that Nadal exposes, and exposes in general when they play, are problems with a high backhand, both as an approach shot or a shot in a neutral rally (resulting from an inability to step back and wait for the ball to come into his optimal point of contact, or step in and take it on the rise), a cross court or inside/in forehand which lands too short and/or has too much spin to be effective as an approach, and finally a wide serve in the deuce court that wasn't spotted particularly well for this surface. A few small things, but they made the difference in this game, set and ultimately in the match.

The most important thing to note from this tiebreak is that if Federer's problems with Nadal were strictly mental, you would expect him to do things differently against Nadal than he does against everyone else. Strange drop shots, ill-advised attempted winners from difficult positions, or strange serves that he normally doesn't spot well. As you can see from this game, he did none of those things. Patrick McEnroe goes to great length to point out that Nadal isn't doing anything differently in this tiebreak, but he fails to recognize the obvious - neither does Federer, and that is precisely why he loses it. As matter of fact, if Federer makes no tactical or technical changes against Nadal, why would Nadal, if his results have been so much better in the rivalry? Federer's patterns don't change against Nadal, and as a result, neither do his results - because Nadal is his bĂȘte noire. Everything Federer normally does well, Nadal has an answer for it. And everything Nadal does well, Federer has very few.

Not mental, but technical and tactical.

I think putting things down to Nadal being “in his head” is taking the easy way out, to be honest. In a round about way it’s saying, “Federer has the game to consistently beat Nadal, but because of his mental block he can’t execute”. But that, in my opinion, doesn’t do much in the way of analysis. If I were Federer, and a coach started delving into the psychology of beating Nadal, I’d fire him immediately, because there are shots he doesn’t have, that he needs, to consistently beat Nadal. Strangely, the psychology of beating Nadal is all anyone seems to want to talk about in the broadcast booth. There is some tactical analysis from McEnroe and Cahill (why does he approach the forehand, why isn't he more aggressive on the return), but a surprising dearth of technical analysis of why he can't make those changes.

It is also possible that Federer realizes the tactical changes he needs to make, and doesn’t want to re-engineer his strokes just for Nadal. For example he could take the racquet head back further away from his body on his backhand and force him to bring it forward through the point of contact (like Almagro and Haas) as opposed to across his body which causes a weak reply and inconsistent point of contact resulting in errors. He could also take a step further behind the baseline and really belt it (like Gasquet, who certainly has a better topspin backhand than Federer), but that would mean a big change in his court positioning that would make his forehand less effective.  Also, he many not have the quickness to cover drop shots and short angles from further behind the baseline. And given that he may, or may not even have to face Nadal in a major (which he hasn't had to in any of his major wins since 2007), he could be tinkering with what works against almost everyone, in exchange for what may or may not work against Nadal, and could ironically cost him against everyone else along the way.

But I believe that if he doesn't make both technical and tactical adjustments he’ll always have the same problems against him, and unless Nadal's game changes significantly, will likely continue to get the same results.
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