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Brain Game: Federer's Fearsome Forehand

Indian Wells, U.S.A.

Federer© Getty ImagesRoger Federer's forehand proved the difference against John Isner in the Indian Wells final.

Craig O'Shannessy embarks on a deep analysis of the BNP Paribas Open final between Roger Federer and John Isner, providing new insight into the form and tactics that have seen the Swiss win 39 of his past 41 matches...

The two biggest weapons in tennis - the serve and forehand - took centre stage in the men's final at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells on Sunday. Roger Federer defeated John Isner 7-6 (7), 6-3 in cool and blustery conditions, not once losing his serve and dominating the baseline to win a record-setting fourth title in the desert. Federer got in trouble early and had to save three break points in his second service game at 1-1 but rolled from there and didn't face another break point for the rest of the match.

It was his forehand that got him out jail.

On those three break points he faced, Federer controlled the back of the court with seven forehands and also finished at the net with one overhead. All the forehands were run-arounds in the Ad cour,t where Isner was directing the ball to his backhand; but Federer was able to protect it and didn't hit one backhand on any of the break points. Isner had to hit six backhands and four forehands, including his return of serve, and couldn't gain control at any point.

Federer hit 14 forehand winners and 14 unforced forehand errors. Both players hit 148 groundstrokes in the match (not including returns) and both were trying to break down their opponent's backhand through the Ad court. Ultimately, as the score line indicated, it was Federer who did it best.

Federer Groundstrokes Total%
Ad Court Forehands (run around) 72 49%
Deuce Court Forehands 36 24%
Backhands 40 27%

Federer manufactured 72 forehands that Isner was trying to make him hit as backhands. The run around forehand is the most lethal weapon in today's game as it has three major advantages over a normal forehand in the deuce court (for right handers such as Federer and Isner):

First, is the upgrade. Isner wanted all of those 72 run around forehands to be backhands, but Federer shut that down with superior footwork and anticipation.

Second, is the target area. The percentages say a neutral backhand behind the baseline must go cross court but if it is hit as an offensive forehand from the same position it can now be taken down the line, effectively doubling the target area.

Third, is the freeze factor. Running around a backhand to hit a forehand typically results in a very open-stanced shot, which is difficult to anticipate. Opponents must wait until the ball is off the strings until they figure out where it is going.

Federer Total Groundstrokes Total%
All Forehands 108 73%
All Backhands 40 27%

All of this resulted in Federer hitting almost three out of four rally balls as forehands. That makes him toough to beat since he is really only covering half a court. Nine of his 14 (64%) forehand winners were struck from the Ad court as Isner desperately struggled to find his backhand.

Isner was able to hit 50 of his 89 (56%) forehands in the Ad court and four of his five forehand winners were run around forehands in the Ad court.

The main benefit for Federer in hitting so many run around forehands in the Ad court is that he simply does not have to hit a backhand. Federer hit 40 rally backhands, but Isner hit 59. Thus, Federer only hit 40 per cent of all backhands in the match. Combined there were 19 forehand winners in the match and only three backhand winners. Today's baseline is definitely dominated by the forehand, and specifically, the forehand hit in the opposite court.

As good as Federer's forehand was, his serve may have even been better. Federer hit 35 first serves for the match, and only lost two of them. He also won 14/21 (67%) of his second serve points. In 2012 Federer is already No. 1 in this RICOH ATP MatchFacts category, winning 62 per cent (a full 3 percentage points better than next best, Novak Djokovic).

In the second set Federer flirted with perfection, only losing one point on serve for the entire set. He led 4-3 40/0 and Isner forced a forehand error off a deep ball through the Ad court.

He is 39-2 since the 2011 US Open and is playing more matches than he has in recent years to start a season.

Craig O'Shannessy is the founder of the Brain Game , a tennis analysis website that uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game.

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