The Federer Backhand That Finally Beat Nadal

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal first met on court in 2004, and they contested their first Grand Slam final two years later. The head-to-head has long skewed in Rafa’s favor: Entering yesterday’s match, Nadal led 23-11, including 9-2 in majors. Nadal’s defense has usually trumped Roger’s offense, but after a five-set battle in yesterday’s Australian Open final, it was Federer who came out on top. Rafa’s signature topspin was less explosive than usual, and Federer’s extremely aggressive tactics took advantage of the fast conditions to generate one opportunity after another in the deciding fifth set.

In the past, Nadal’s topspin has been particularly damaging to Federer’s one-handed backhand, one of the most beautiful shots in the sport–but not the most effective. The last time the two players met in Melbourne, in a 2014 semifinal the Spaniard won in straight sets, Nadal hit 89 crosscourt forehands, shots that challenges Federer’s backhand, nearly three-quarters of them (66) in points he won. Yesterday, he hit 122 crosscourt forehands, less than half of them in points he won. Rafa’s tactics were similar, but instead of advancing easily, he came out on the losing side.

Federer’s backhand was unusually effective yesterday, especially compared to his other matches against Nadal. It wasn’t the only thing he did well, but as we’ll see, it accounted for more than the difference between the two players.

A metric I’ve devised called Backhand Potency (BHP) illustrates just how much better Fed executed with his one-hander. BHP approximates the number of points whose outcomes were affected by the backhand: add one point for a winner or an opponent’s forced error, subtract one for an unforced error, add a half-point for a backhand that set up a winner or opponent’s error on the following shot, and subtract a half-point for a backhand that set up a winning shot from the opponent. Divide by the total number of backhands, multiply by 100*, and the result is net effect of each player’s backhand. Using shot-by-shot data from over 1,400 men’s matches logged by the Match Charting Project, we can calculate BHP for dozens of active players and many former stars.

* The average men’s match consists of approximately 125 backhands (excluding slices), while Federer and Nadal each hit over 200 in yesterday’s five-setter.

By the BHP metric, Federer’s backhand is neutral: +0.2 points per 100 backhands. Fed wins most points with his serve and his forehand; a neutral BHP indicates that while his backhand isn’t doing the damage, at least it isn’t working against him. Nadal’s BHP is +1.7 per 100 backhands, a few ticks below those of Murray and Djokovic, whose BHPs are +2.6 and +2.5, respectively. Among the game’s current elite, Kei Nishikori sports the best BHP, at +3.6, while Andre Agassi‘s was a whopping +5.0. At the other extreme, Marin Cilic‘s is -2.9, Milos Raonic‘s is -3.7, and Jack Sock‘s is -6.6. Fortunately, you don’t have to hit very many backhands to shine in doubles.

BHP tells us just how much Federer’s backhand excelled yesterday: It rose to +7.8 per 100 shots, a better mark than Fed has ever posted against his rival. Here are his BHPs for every Slam meeting:

Match       RF BHP  
2006 RG      -11.2  
2006 WIMB*    -3.4  
2007 RG       -0.7  
2007 WIMB*    -1.0  
2008 RG      -10.1  
2008 WIMB     -0.8  
2009 AO        0.0  
2011 RG       -3.7  
2012 AO       -0.2  
2014 AO       -9.9  
2017 AO*      +7.8 

* matches won by Federer

Yesterday’s rate of +7.8 per 100 shots equates to an advantage of +17 over the course of his 219 backhands. One unit of BHP is equivalent to about two-thirds of a point of match play, since BHP can award up to a combined 1.5 points for the two shots that set up and then finish a point. Thus, a +17 BHP accounts for about 11 points, exactly the difference between Federer and Nadal yesterday. Such a performance differs greatly from what Nadal has done to Fed’s backhand in the past: On average, Rafa has knocked his BHP down to -1.9, a bit more than Nadal’s effect on his typical opponent, which is a -1.7 point drop. In the 25 Federer-Nadal matches for which the Match Charting Project has data, Federer has only posted a positive BHP five times, and before yesterday’s match, none of those achievements came at a major.

The career-long trend suggests that, next time Federer and Nadal meet, the topspin-versus-backhand matchup will return to normal. The only previous time Federer recorded a +5 BHP or better against Nadal, at the 2007 Tour Finals, he followed it up by falling to -10.1 in their next match, at the 2008 French Open. He didn’t post another positive BHP until 2010, six matches later.

Outlier or not, Federer’s backhand performance yesterday changed history.  Using the approximation provided by BHP, had Federer brought his neutral backhand, Nadal would have won 52% of the 289 points played—exactly his career average against the Swiss—instead of the 48% he actually won. The long-standing rivalry has required both players to improve their games for more than a decade, and at least for one day, Federer finally plugged the gap against the opponent who has frustrated him the most.