As part of my series looking at what I would do to improve a persons game I have long had a theory about Roger Federer. It is actually related to my thoughts on Laura Robson, simply from a different angle. In this case it is not about footwork per se it is about movement and particularly positioning.
Fed has a legendary forehand which he favours over his world class but less amazing backhand. Rafa, particularly, uses this against him because he can force Roger out of position with this weakness. Once Roger is out of position Rafa can attack. Until then he can’t get through Rogers defence and he is open to his attack.
The specific shot Rafa uses is a very hard shot with incredible amounts of topspin that kicks high up to Rogers one handed backhand. Generally Roger can handle this shot but often enough he will either miss the return or give Rafa a ball he can attack. Roger can’t afford to give Rafa any easy shots so he often runs around his backhand to use his forehand which is more of a weapon. The problem is that he is actually sealing his own fate when he does this. Something I have learnt to my own detriment. When you run around your backhand you often leave a huge hole in your defence on your forehand side for your opponent to hit into.
By going for your forehand you take longer to recover than if you had just blocked it. So the defensive hole is kept open for a split second longer. At the same time your opponent knows roughly what you will do and can hedge his bets. He knows that a big shot is coming but also that a huge hole is open that you will find hard to cover. The opponents common answer is simply to redirect your good shot into the gaping hole.
It is much easier to redirect a good shot than to attack it. So that is what Rafa does and it is what many people have done against me. It is also what I noticed in the US Open Mens final, the same can be said of the French open final this year too. Djokovic does not have the same backhand weakness against Rafa that Roger does but Rafa has managed to convince Djokovic that his backhand is not good enough so the DJoker repeatedly ran around his backhand exposing a hole in his defence which Rafa duly took advantage of. The difference here is that Novak is an expert at doing exactly the same to Rafa.
What I would try comes directly from my experience as a one handed backhander myself. I can have the same trouble and I have started to find a straightforward solution. Stop trying to attack the attack. Just be more patient. Don’t ever get out of position because this is more dangerous than the actual attack to my backhand. By not exposing a hole in my forehand I put up a wall. I can defend equally well on either side and so my opponent is forced to take more risk leading to errors. The point is that this is less exciting than attacking all the time but it is more practical. It is what Rafa and Novak do and we see how well it works for them. I am certainly finding it work for me. Why shouldn’t it I’m just copying something that has made these players great. Their great tactics.
I am even finding that a simple solid block or slice can put my opponent under pressure for two reasons. I am returning the ball with the same power that was given to me. That makes my opponents strength my strength but this time I choose the angle so they often have to hit up. That is something I can take advantage of.
Second, I am in good position. I have not run around my backhand or hit my backhand hard, so well before my opponent can make his next shot I am already in good position and preparing my response. Now I am ready for any error, which makes his next shot much much harder than it would have been.
In words this isn’t necessarily convincing. It is something you have to try. It is certainly something I am seeing on tour now I know what to look for. Does an opponent leave holes in their defence. Roger does and the top guys know how to exploit this. So my answer is obviously about keeping the hole closed and out waiting your opponent. Forcing them to take the initiative.
Rafa knows that Roger is a born attacker. He has a world class defence but not the patience to match Nadal. So Fed gets frustrated in the end, whether he is winning or losing and chooses to attack. Again my answer is to look at the mentality of the player to really address the problem. As with my analysis of Laura Robson my angle is to emphasise the attacking advantage of making a defensive play. This is counter attacking at its best. Let Rafa go to your backhand. Vary the return back, even slow the point down with your return focusing your attack not on the shot you hit but the shot your opponent will hit. Blocking or slicing is easier and you can be accurate making the shot difficult enough then you pile on the pressure with positioning to close any easy options leaving only the difficult ones.
In summary Nadal breaks down feds topspin Backhand. Fed tries to attack either with his backhand or an inside out forehand. Both options lose Fed position. He should keep position instead. Block it back. Close the gap and wait for a better opportunity. Rafa is more patient and clinical than Fed. Rafa attacks less and waits as long as it takes. Fed isn’t used to this and is too impatient. instead he can use this as an opportunity to setup an attack with his backhand redirecting Rafas shot and power to his own attack.
It may be that Roger tried this and it failed but I can’t find the footage to prove it. I can only say that it is really working well for me against opponents I trouble with and it clearly works for both Rafa and Novak. So I wonder if it would work for Roger. It’s fun simply trying to come up with the answer.
Let me know what you think and what ideas you have.