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Brain Game: Stan's Bruising Backhand Stops Federer

Monte-Carlo, Monaco

Wawrinka© Getty ImagesWawrinka's average backhand speed was 14 percent faster than Federer's.

The hottest shot from the best player on tour this year is – wait for it – a one-handed backhand.

In an era of dominant forehands, crushing serves and impenetrable two-handed backhands, Stanislas Wawrinka’s raking one-handed backhand is a huge reason he is the most successful player on tour this season and leads the Emirates ATP Race to London standings, which reflect 2014 form.

Wawrinka defeated Roger Federer 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2 in the final of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters and his backhand once again stood tall as the best shot on the court.

Wawrinka had eight backhand winners and seven forehand winners for the match while Federer had six forehand and four backhand winners from the back of the court. Wawrinka’s backhand wreaks havoc in multiple ways and essentially means he only has to cover half the court (the Ad court), which reduces his running and shrinks the court to his advantage.

Bruising Backhands
Everything flows from the strength of the Swiss star. He is so strong, particularly in his forearm, that his backhand is both a defensive stronghold and an offensive weapon. In the middle of the third set Wawrinka’s average backhand speed was measured at 74mph to Federer’s 65mph. That’s almost 14% harder, making the weight of his ball all that much tougher to deal with. It repeatedly forced Federer onto the back foot, stopped him hurting Stan down the line and delivered shorter balls back, allowing for improved court position and better geometry for the next shot.

Ad-Court Domination
Federer wrote the book on this tactic but Wawrinka’s stronger backhand means he now gets to enjoy the benefits of only respecting half a court. Wawrinka got the better of the inevitable Ad court rallies, making it tough for Federer to go down the line with authority to hurt Wawrinka’s forehand. This enabled Wawrinka to camp out in the Ad court, where he hit 80% (12/15) of his groundstroke winners. Only twice for the match was Federer able to force a Wawrinka forehand error with a backhand groundstroke down the line.

Watch Monte-Carlo Final Highlights

Primary Cross Court
Wawrinka’s primary role with his backhand was to take it cross court to put Federer in the “backhand cage,” where he could not hurt him to gain control of the baseline rallies. At the start of the third set Wawrinka had hit 81% of his backhands cross court, forcing Federer into 18 backhand errors.

Wawrinka constantly rolled his backhand wide and shorter around the service line, stretching Federer into a defensive position. In the first two sets Federer’s lone backhand winner with both players standing at the back of the court was a shooter off the baseline tape in the opening game of the second set.

Secondary Down The Line
Just the threat of dropping this hammer is a game-changer for Wawrinka. Only two of the eight winners were down the line but the power of this shot and Wawrinka’s ability to crush it from everywhere automatically expanded the area that Federer had to cover. Up to the final, Wawrinka’s backhand down the line was proven by Hawk-Eye to be more superior than Federer’s.

Wawrinka’s backhand down the line on average landed 8.5 feet from the baseline while Federer’s was almost three feet worse at 11.4 feet from the baseline. In a game where inches matter, that’s some valuable real estate. Wawrinka also got it closer to the sideline, averaging 3.6 feet from the sideline to Federer’s 6.5 feet. 

This was a tough loss for Federer as he was only three points away from winning the match in the second set tie-break at 5/6 and then quickly unravelled to go down 0-4 in the third set.

Wawrinka also won a key battleground on first serves as Federer only won one of 16 points starting with a forehand return off a first serve. Federer was always looking to keep the points short, jumping on any short balls to attack the net. Federer won 76% (23/30) of his net points and 77% (7/9) of serve-and-volley points.

Wawrinka’s dominance from the back of the court meant that Federer tried to keep points as short as possible. Federer had a slight edge (56 to 53) of points ending in five shots or less, but he lost control in points lasting five to nine shots (32 to 37) and was only half as good as Wawrinka in points lasting more than nine shots (six to 12). This all added up to Federer running slightly more than Wawrinka (2232m to 2139m) for the match.

Wawrinka’s magnificent one-handed backhand speaks loudly to all those numbers and can take a sizeable amount of credit for his first Masters 1000 title.

Brain GameCraig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Read more at

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