Friday, February 7, 2014


This is the story of two Swiss players - each with a 1-handed backhand who played the same player at the same tournament with two very different results.  Considering their all-time pedigree, a casual (and ill-informed) initial assessment would conclude that Federer's backhand ought to have less trouble than Wawrinka's, with the high bouncing, left pulling, heavy spinning forehand of Rafael Nadal.

In fact, the opposite is the case.

While Federer continues to have problems dictating points because of this idiosyncrasy, Wawrinka seems not to have the same, and this is not merely manifested by the results of the 2014 Australian Open.  Despite never previously taking a set off of Nadal, Wawrinka has really never had a backhand problem with Nadal - he has other problems, and one could argue that so does Federer...but it's useful to analyze the backhand, as this is clearly problematic for one, but not the other.

Now, I should point out that as often as the high 1-handed backhand problem is cited as a problem for Federer, the two-handed backhand is proposed as the solution, and as a result, the assumption is made that because Federer is the foremost exponent of the 1-handed backhand in the history of the game, its future is necessarily as dead as his recent record against Nadal.  After all, who would want to expose themselves to this seemingly insurmountable obstacle?  

But an analysis of the fundamentals of a backhand would do much to identify why Wawrinka's backhand is superior to Federer's and may very well be the best backhand in the world.  First the fundamentals:  a good backhand starts with:
  1. A closed shoulder on take back
  2. A point of contact in front and at waist level
  3. A strong but controlled step into the court upon contact
  4. A smooth and controlled shoulder turn through the point of contact
  5. A racquet head that starts below the ball, but flows through it on contact
  6. A finish out in front, where the body weight is balanced neither leaning too far forward or back (and just like after a good serve, the player should be able to immediately address the next shot).
Now if you have a 2-handed backhand, items #1, #3, #4 and #6 are taken care of without much extra required - it's almost impossible to not to close the shoulders on take back, and because your reach is shorter it's rare that reach for the ball with just your arms.  The shoulder turn is controlled because both shoulders are necessarily involved in the stroke production and with two hands the finish is almost never above the head.

And you can get away with being a little fuzzy with your point of contact because that primarily goes to racquet head stability, which is the whole point of the second hand on the racquet.  Most 2-handed backhands are flatter (think David Ferrer and Andy Murray) because the second hand allows you to stabilize the racquet head and still hit through the ball, so you don't have to sacrifice any pace for spin by brushing up against the back of the ball.

Now, as far as the fundamentals are concerned, the 1-handed backhand has little to no margin.  Both Federer and Wawrinka turn the shoulders well on the take back; most professionals do.  You see this more with club players who reach across their chest on the take back. The exception is when a 1-handed player is stretched, they often switch to a slice or are forced to flick the racquet head through the point of contact. With the flick, because everything is accelerated, the hand-eye coordination required to get the timing right is typically reserved for the most talented players.  Think Federer and Dimitrov flicking running backhands down the line.  It as beautiful to behold as it is rare.

But the first place Federer and Wawrinka differ is making their point of contact at waist level - primarily from a high looping shot that moves through their strike zone.  With Nadal's forehand, for example, as the ball arrives, rather than being at the apex of its arch in the strike zone (thus in a kind of mid-air suspension, like the top of the serve toss) it is, in fact, still moving in three dimensions - (1) up into your chest, (2) towards you and (3) to the left.

We have already discussed how the timing has to be very precise on the 1-hander because your racquet head stability is limited to what you can create with one hand, but with movement in three dimensions, the premium on timing is almost insurmountable. Taller players like Dimitrov or Daniel Brands, whose waists are considerably higher than even slightly shorter players (because most of one's height is in the legs) struggle less because the ball stays closer to their optimal strike zone.  Also, most players concede the baseline and play yards behind it, unlike what Federer tried to do, and like what Wawrinka successfully did, against Nadal.

So average height, aggressive players like Federer and Wawrinka must adjust, and they basically have three options in how to handle this corkscrew of a shot.

The first alternative is just try to hit the backhand at shoulder height.  This forces them to finish the stroke above the head, which is a problem when you need spin to control that shot (and Federer really does).  Spin is generated by going from low to high before and after the point of contact, and it's easy to get low on a high backhand, but very hard to finish high. Furthermore, if you finish too high, you lose forward momentum, pace and control. Often the player looks like he's performing a pantomime of a backhand, with the finish high above and even behind his head.  And doesn't that sound exactly like what Federer's backhand looks like against Nadal?

But what about Wawrinka? 

His natural backhand finishes further out in front of him than Federer's does, so if he takes the backhand high, whereas Federer's naturally high finish is hard to duplicate, Wawrinka's backhand can finish going through the point of contact even on a high backhand.  This is why he is able to generate more pace than his more illustrious countryman, because his fundamentals are better - I know, it's hard to believe that a backhand as aesthetically appealing as Federer's is fundamentally flawed, but in this particular regard, it is.

The second alternative to handle the high backhand is to step back and wait for the ball to fall into the strike zone, but this is problematic for 3 reasons:

First, by moving back you concede the forecourt which makes it more difficult to control and finish the point with subsequent shots.  This is a problem Federer has particularly on clay, compounded by his own looping backhand, which lacks the flat trajectory of Wawrinka's and by the time his ball reaches Nadal it now has even less power because it was hit from further behind the baseline.

Second, to be able to come forward through the stroke you have to move back beyond the point of contact, and step into it. This is easier if you set up a little further behind the baseline, like Wawrinka, or even further for most clay court specialists with one-handed backhands (e.g. Carlos Berlocq).  They often set up shop 8-10 feet beyond the baseline as their default court positioning.  But with this approach, you'll have to defend better...much "Nadal" better.  

Good luck with that.

If you don't like to concede the baseline you'll typically move only as far back as the point of contact, but then all your momentum is moving backwards when you hit the ball, and this is a problem Federer has on all surfaces against Nadal, but particularly on hard courts, where he is even more reticent to conceded the baseline.

And third, waiting for the ball to drop into the strike zone does nothing to mitigate the problem of the ball moving in two dimensions - only this time the ball is moving down and towards you rather than up and towards you. Most good 1-handed backhanders would prefer this to the ball coming up, towards them, but it's still harder than a ball that apexes right in the strike zone and stays there just waiting to get belted.  1-handers just love that.

The third alternative to handling the high 1-hander is the most effective solution, it is ironically technically the easiest to do, but by far it is the most difficult tactically.  To hit your most natural 1-handed backhand on a heavy spinning ball you can step into the court and catch it on the rise.  Doing so will keep the ball in your strike zone, thereby maximizing your racquet head stability - after all, just try keeping the racquet above your shoulder or at your waist for 3 minutes straight and you'll see which is easiest.

The second advantage to taking it on the rise is that, with very little effort, you use the pace of the ball coming to you most efficiently when it has the most energy on the way up - like a drop kick in football - and thus you can keep your shot deep with spin, without much risk.  

Of course the risk increases exponentially the harder you try to hit the ball, because everything is accelerated, and the timing has to be just right - so typically only the most talented of players, with the best hand-eye coordination, can do this consistently.  But technically it is easier to do this than hit the shot at shoulder height, or move back and wait for it.  Also, because you're already moving forward to take it on the rise, you are already moving forward through the stroke, which is always good for power and direction.

Now Federer is extremely talented - moreso than Wawrinka - and he has very consistent technique - he rarely improvises if he doesn't have to, and when he does he makes it look easy.  And because tactically he doesn't like to concede the baseline/forecourt, this would seem to be his optimal solution - we've all marveled at how easy he makes it look.

So why the bloody hell doesn't he do this all the time?  Well, in the words of Hamlet, "...there's the rub."

Nadal's ball is different than anyone else's ball in tennis. Nadal employs the reverse forehand more often, and puts more spin on his shots on average, than any player in the history of tennis.  Measured  years ago when he was still using natural gut strings (he has since switched to one of the "poly-est" of polyester strings) his RPM averaged 3200 (vs 2400 for Federer and 1800 for the rest of the field) and maxed out at a whopping 5400 - I mean that's just absurd.

Because of this, Nadal is not only able to hit harder, but he is also able to hit shorter in the court, and as a result, to take the ball on the rise, you'd have to be literally 2-3 feet inside the baseline to make this work on every backhand you hit.  And it follows that'd you have to be 2-3 feet inside the baseline on the forehand as well, because moving back, forward, left and right between every shot is impossible even for a player who moves as efficiently as Federer, and especially against Nadal.

But Wawrinka has options that Federer does not.  If he takes the backhand on the rise, because his natural stroke is flatter and more relaxed, he is better able to handle the pace and coincidentally hit with more pace and depth himself.  As a result, the ball coming to Nadal pushes him further and further back, reducing his ability to impose his will on his next shot, causing his next shots to land shorter and shorter.  Then Wawrinka's next backhand is more likely to be in his optimal strike zone and he can really belt it - either safely cross court, or tactically more risky (but because he's into the court and moving forward technically less risky) backhand up the line.

That too is a thing of beauty if you've ever seen his.

This forces Nadal to hit deeper, which ironically makes it easier for Wawrinka to half-volley it safely back - in fact this is, in some ways, an easier shot. It's only on clay that you'll ever see Wawrinka consistently back up to hit his backhand, and obviously his results against Nadal, while generally very bad, are even worse on clay because of this (this despite winning Roland Garros Juniors in 2003, BTW).  Furthermore, Nadal has always had problems with hard flat shots into his forehand - this is probably due to being a natural right hander, and manifests in his (over)use of the reverse forehand, and only exacerbated by the hardest flattest shots into that side. Cue the Wawrinka backhand, but as for Federer's?


So if he doesn't have this high 1-handed backhand problem, why has Wawrinka had so much trouble against Nadal in the past?  Aside from the obvious - that he's no Roger Federer - there are some other changes he's made which has helped him more now than in the past.

First, he changed racquets, facilitating improvements in his forehand, which always suffered from an imbalance of power and spin - in the past, too much spin. These days, his forehand is almost as good as his backhand. Second, he's fitter which facilitates his movement, allowing him to position himself better on all shots. Third, his volleys, while they've never been great, are better now than they have been - and this allows him to take fewer cuts at his (still at times) shaky forehand. Now he can come forward to the net more and finish his points earlier.

But Federer's backhand doesn't allow him to impact Nadal the way Wawrinka's does, and thus in this particular match up, it is more difficult for him to get into position to control, set up and kill points...and remind us of just how good he really is.  In fact, against Nadal, the closer he gets to 20 strokes in the rally, and the more often he does so, the worse it is for him. Not necessarily the case with Djokovic and Murray who defend better than Federer, and can more easily take the backhand on the rise, with that second hand.

Now I'm not saying that Wawrinka is all of a sudden going to dominate Nadal - to the contrary, I don't think that will happen at all, because there's a lot more to Nadal than just a high looping forehand.  But if you're looking for a solution to Federer's high 1-handed backhand problem against Nadal, you need look no further than his Davis Cup teammate. 

Whether he can or will, at this point in his career, make the necessary adjustments, is an altogether different proposition.


I found an excellent instructional clip here that goes into very specific detail about what Wawrinka does differently from other players on the one-handed backhand, and why his is consistently hit with more power and spin than any of his contemporaries.   There are segments of the blogosphere that resist the notion that any player on earth could have a 1-handed backhand that is superior to Roger Federer's.  But this clip is an objective analysis showing that the hip/core rotation (which you can accomplish by a pronounced step into the court, with the lead foot pointing towards the target, rather than directly across the body) is more pronounced than anyone.
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