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Brain Game: Rafa Gets Upper Hand By Finding Roger's Backhand

Cincinnati, U.S.A.

Federer© Getty ImagesRoger Federer won only one point when Rafael Nadal's return went to his backhand.

Craig O'Shannessy examines the Cincinnati quarter-final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

For Roger and Rafa, it’s all about finding the backhand.

No other tactic matters nearly as much in this magical match-up as the simple pattern of pressuring the opponent’s backhand until it breaks. Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 in the Cincinnati quarter-finals in a high quality encounter that once again focused on this pivotal tactic.

In a match that featured 70 percent total errors (138 errors – 58 winners) more than half (74) of the errors from all strokes were from the backhand wing of both players. Nadal’s backhand was relatively more solid with four winners and 29 errors (21 groundstroke – eight return) while Federer’s backhand accounted for two winners and 45 errors (26 groundstroke – 19 return). In heavyweight battles like these, the role of the forehand is to win the match while the role of the backhand is to not lose it.

Federer played aggressively and attacked more than normal on the quicker center court in Cincinnati and got close to victory when leading 7-5, 3-3 and 0-30 on Nadal’s serve. The snapshot of the 0-30 point paints a broader picture of the match strategy, particularly as points like this one take on greater importance to the final outcome.

Down 0-30, Nadal hit a high percentage jam first serve to Federer’s backhand, then pounded two more forehands to Federer’s backhand before finishing at the net with a forehand volley. Nadal matched up a serve, two forehands and a volley against a backhand return and two more backhands. The odds for Nadal winning that pattern are high.

In the biggest moments in their 31-match head-to-head rivalry this pattern has played itself out countless times on different continents. At 15-30 Nadal again served to Federer’s backhand and played behind for a forehand winner. The 30-30 point featured a 20-shot rally with both players desperate to hit forehands and ended with Federer barely missing a forehand winner down the line. An inch difference and Federer could well be living to fight another day. Nadal clinched the game when Federer netted a backhand cross court.

Federer also got to 30-all at 4-4 in the second set but once again it was two more backhand errors that stopped Federer in his tracks.

Federer’s 26 groundstroke backhand errors were overwhelmingly forced by Nadal’s forehand. Nadal pressured 19 from his forehand, six from his backhand and one from an overhead and a volley. Nadal’s heavy forehand proved once again to be the perfect battering ram to attack Federer’s one-handed backhand.

Federer’s two backhand winners both came in the first set with one of them sealing set point at 6-5, 40-15 with a crushing topspin cross court winner for the ages. Nadal’s four backhand winners included two passing shots and two deft lob winners over Federer’s head.

The serving patterns in the match closely mirrored the baseline patterns with Nadal serving 87 percent to Federer’s backhand on first serves. Federer hit 57 backhand returns off first serves for the match, winning 24 percent (14) of these points. Federer won 37 percent (3/8) when returning first serves with his forehand, but it’s not enough to make any impact on the final outcome.

Nadal was also able to win the arm wrestle on second serves, making Federer hit 60 percent backhands where Federer could only convert four of 15. Federer mixed a little more with his serving patterns, making Nadal hit 59 per cent backhands on first serves and 61 percent on second serves.

Another critical tactic that flows from serve location is the desire to hit the more potent forehand as the first shot after the serve. Federer hit 86 percent forehands (59/68) as the first shot after the serve, winning 59 percent of those points. Federer only won one point for the entire match when he started the point with a serve and then a backhand. Nadal hit a serve and a forehand to start the point 75 per cent of the time, winning 70 percent with the forehand and 35 percent with the backhand.

Federer will take confidence from the defeat as he heads towards the US Open as he played at a much higher level than the previous round against Tommy Haas and certainly had looks to win the match late in the second set.

Nadal moves on to face No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych in today’s semi-final.

Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game.

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