We marvel at the elegance of Roger’s one hander and the classic simplicity of his Pro Staff racquet, but both have cost him at least 5 Slams. Let me explain.
1. Roger’s one hand backhand is a liability against increasing pace and spin.
When Roger won his first major in 2003, 20 of the top 50 players had 1HBs:
Federer, Philippoussis, Srichaphan, Henman, Kuerten, Schalken, Verkerk, Mantilla, Mirnyi, Calleri, Costa, Lopez, Dent, Gaudio, Gonzalez, Blake, Ljubicic, Youzhny, Volandri, Rochus.
In 2012, just 7 of the top 50 use 1 hand:
Federer, Almagro, Gasguet, Wawrinka, Youzhny, and Lopez.
The emergence of more powerful racquets and polyester strings have created 3 challenges for “one handers” like Federer:
- Diminished return of service performance. Roger is seldom in the top 10 for service return statistics. In fact, no player with a one hander appears in the top 10 for % of return games won and % of break points won.
- Difficulty with high bouncing balls. The lower contact point of the one hand backhand can be exploited by players with polyester strings that generate 10-15% more spin than a decade ago. Balls are bouncing higher in Wimbledon, in particular, where a one-hander’s advantage is now nulled.
- Fewer “at net” winners. The one-hander was a distinct advantage for aggressive net players like Sampras and Becker, but the decline of net play due to higher ball speed and RPM nulls this advantage for Federer and other one handers.
The one hander has always had strengths (reach, power, disguise), but its weaknesses are increasingly exposed by trends in the modern game, as described in this controversial article from the ITF’s Coaching website.
Rafael Nadal exploits Roger’s one-hander with the most success.
Because he’s left-handed and hits with significantly more spin, he–more than any other–makes Federer hit one of tennis’ most difficult shots: a high-bouncing one-hand backhand.
He also has the luxury of serving wide to that backhand at 30-40, the most common break point arrangement:
2. Roger’s small-headed racquet robs him of needed margin for error.
His Pro Staff Six.One 90 racquet has the smallest stringbed of racquet used by a top 20 player. It’s also quite heavy. And as ball speeds and spin increase, Roger increasingly shanks more shots off its frame.
Roger’s racquet affords him extra precision at the cost of surface area and extra unforced errors per match. Even Sampras has abondoned his Pro Staff.
5 majors Roger MAY have won…with a 2 hand backhand.
First, there’s the 7 Slam finals he’s lost to Nadal:
2006 French Open
2007 French Open
2008 French Open
2009 Australian Open*
2011 French Open*
A 2 hand backhand would help him handle Nadal’s high-bouncing spin: he could play from a more commanding, central court position and not have to run around backhands to hit forehands. But Roger’s opponent is still Nadal, and most of these losses were on clay, so realistically Federer may have won 3 of these matches with a 2 hander.
Then there are his 4 losses at the past 4 US Opens:
2009 Finals: Loss to Del Potro*
2010 Semis: Loss to Djokovic
2011 Semis: Loss to Djokovic*
2012 Quarters: Loss to Berdych
I would certainly score the 2009 US Open to a 2 handed Federer. Del Potro repeatedly pounded 1st serves into Roger’s backhand, which were returned with weak block or a chip. He’d likely have 2 additional US Open wins if he had the service return that a two handed backhand affords (ie, Djokovic and Murray). You could sprinkle in an extra Australian Open as well.
But with a 2 hand backhand and a modern racquet, is Roger Federer still…Roger Federer?
He’s the GOAT with 17 Slams and counting, but I wonder (am I the only one): Is his success because of his unconventional game, or despite it? If a one handed backhand and a small-headed racquet are truly the choice of champions, why is Roger the only one left playing with them?
Though I believe Roger’s “classic game” has cost him Slams, it makes him more compelling and his accomplishments more significant.
I’ve harshly criticized Roger’s backhand on my blog
, but let me be clear that I enjoy watching him employ it: only he can hit a slice, drive, or drop shot…with clever disguise. It is his most diverse shot.
A “modernized” Roger may have achieved more, but the journey would not have been as fun to witness.