By In Stuff


Let’s talk for a minute about Roger Federer’s backhand. It’s a magical thing, that backhand. His forehand is, of course, a dominant weapon, powerful and accurate, one of the great shots in the history of tennis. His serve is perfection, nothing less. Federer is an artist at the net — touch and force, whatever he needs — and the overhead is probably his most underappreciated shot because he makes it look so easy … and it isn’t easy at all.

But that backhand is something different. Federer hits the backhand the way Rod Carew used to hit baseballs — spin and angles, reflexes and sharp force. Federer’s countryman Stan Wawrinka has perhaps the best one-handed forehand in the game today; his backhand is a titanic thing, a roundhouse punch, he uncoils and then crushes the ball. Rafael Nadal is a natural righty and so his savage two-handed backhand is basically just a righty forehand with the left hand acting as a guide. Novak Djokovic has the greatest backhand I’ve ever seen — it too is a two-hander, and he can do anything with it.

Federer’s backhand is different from those. He can crush it, but he rarely does. Instead, Fed hits stupefying slices that bounce so low opponents have no choice at all but to hit up, leading to easy Federer put-aways. Instead, Fed moves in on the ball and with his superhuman reflexes hits his backhand just as the ball ascends, turning its power back at his opponent the way a mirror turns back laser shots in the movies. Instead, Fed waves at the ball, with the motion of a graduate throwing his cap up in the air, and the ball hops over the net, not with great force but it usually makes his opponent run.

That backhand is so beautiful in its variety and simplicity.

And yet, every Federer fan knows, it is his backhand that, more than anything else, has made Fed vulnerable to the driving force of Rafael Nadal. That backhand — like all one-handed backhands — struggles against the high ball. If you play tennis (and you have a one-handed backhand) you know, it’s all but impossible for mortals to hit a high one-handed backhand with any weight at all. Federer, alas, is mortal.

Through the years, Nadal had made Federer hit high one-handed backhands over and over and over and over again. Nadal does this by putting blistering topspin on the ball — the tennis ball hits the clay or the grass or the hard court and it blasts forward and up like a drag car at the start.

When Nadal hits these high-rise shots to Federer’s forehand, well, Fed can easily counter with his own power. But to Federer’s backhand, these shots are kryptonite. For 13 years, we have watched Nadal hit sonic topspin blasts at Federer’s backhand, again and again. Yes, of course, Federer has hit plenty of great backhands through the years against Nadal, but the sheer weight of Nadal’s fury have worn him down, stolen hope. There are various reasons why Nadal has won 23 of the 35 matches the two have played, but this is the big one. Just like Ali was vulnerable to Frazier’s looping left hook, Federer never could quite solve Rafa’s high-backhand attack.

Then came Sunday. This Australian Open was such a joyous thing, one of those rare times when everyone really could step back in time. On the women’s side, the Williams’ sisters took us back a decade. On the men’s, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray kindly stopped for us, leaving the path clear for Roger and Rafa, one more time, after all these years.

There’s something else to say about Roger Federer. Jerry Seinfeld once wrote that the reason we love the old James Bonds movies is because we end up rooting for both the good guy and the bad guy. There’s something to that. Sports is a passionate business, and rivalries naturally spark love and loathing in equal measure. You love Magic, you loathe Bird. You love Chrissie, you loathe Martina. You love Phil, you loathe Tiger. It mostly works that way.

But Roger Federer — through some combination of grace and generosity — somehow made it OK to root for him and against him at the same time, to love him but also to love the vividness of Nadal or the tenacity of Djokovic or the counterpunching of Murray. It’s not entirely clear how Federer did that. Tennis is an individual sport, but Federer is somehow the ultimate teammate, making everyone better around him, giving everyone a perfect picture of just how you should act when you become the No. 1 tennis player on earth.

And so, yes, of course on Sunday I rooted for Federer. But I did not root against Nadal. That should be a strange feeling, but Federer has made it feel natural. When Federer hit a brilliant shot, I would feel happy, but there would be a twinge of the blues for Nadal. When Nadal would make an error giving Fed a key point, I would think: “Come on, Rafa!” I realized at some point that while I wanted Federer to win, I really just wanted this match to go on forever.

But it could not go on forever — and it would come down to Roger Federer’s backhand. These Federer-Nadal matches always do. Rafa, like always, bombarded Federer’s backhand with those high topspin bombs. And this time, Federer stepped into those backhands, hitting them before they could jump up high on them, crunching the ball on the rise. He turned the whole thing around. He rushed in and hit the ball from such close range — it was like attacking a beehive — that it was Nadal, impossibly, who found himself sprawling.

This, of course, is Federer’s ideal, the thing he has always tried to do against Nadal. But that’s the point: More often than not he couldn’t do it. Do you know how hard it is to hit a Rafael Nadal shot on the rise? Imagine trying to hit bottle rockets after they take off. It takes insane reflexes and bold certainty, and even if you do it once, twice, five times, ten times, Nadal keeps coming, keeps sending those bottle rockets your way.

On Sunday, Federer kept stepping in, kept turning Nadal’s topspin shot backward. There are those who will say — and there’s a point to this — that 30-year-old Nadal isn’t 25-year-old Nadal, and his topspin shots don’t jump with the same fury. Still, to watch Federer hit those backhands on the rise after six months away, after five years without a grand slam title, after seven years of playing the classy elder statesman to an extraordinary class of younger player, well, it was magnificent.

The match went five sets, and it was a frenetic blend of splendor and volatility. There were extraordinary rallies. Each man dominated for periods of time. Intensity overwhelmed all. By the time it got to the fifth set, the two men were left bare, returned to their basic instincts. Federer unloaded his serve and forehand when he could. Nadal hit climbing shot after climbing shot at Fed’s backhand. The Federer break came when he stepped in on a serve he hit that gorgeous backhand at such a sharp angle that even Nadal could not get it back. One game later, Federer served his way out of a jam and won his 18th grand slam title with a forehand on the line.

There is a numeric majesty about the number 18 — that’s how many majors Jack Nicklaus won, the most in men’s golf history. There is a lot that Federer and Nicklaus share as sportsmen. It was hard not to get a bit emotional seeing this:

But the real emotion came as Federer spoke:

“I’m out of words, and Rafa said so many great things. But of course, I’d like to also congratulate Rafa on an amazing comeback. I don’t think either one of us believed we were going to be in the finals of Australia when we saw each other four, five months ago. And here we stand … (turning to Rafa) … I’m happy for you. I would have been happy to lose too, to be honest, the comeback was perfect as it was. Tennis is a tough sport. There’s no draws. But if there was going to be one I would have been very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa.”

We tennis fans have been so lucky to live in the time of Roger Federer.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

26 Responses to Fed

  1. Kyle says:

    I really didn’t think it was possible to write anything else worthwhile about Federer, but just like the man himself proved he could still win a major, Mr. Posnanski proves he can still find keen analysis and heart in a story.

  2. McKingford says:

    I have rarely ever disagreed with Joe over the many years of reading him, but the one thing that got my back up was his suggestion that in the battle for GOAT, it was Rafa who should prevail over Fed. And although it’s a little easier now to put that silliness to rest (with a 35 YO Fed winning his 18th major), it never made any sense.

    The only thing Rafa ever had on Roger was the head-to-head record between the 2. By any other metric, majors (at 2/3 of Rafa’s majors come at the French), weeks at #1, overall record, consistency, longevity, Roger is clearly the better of the two.

    But Rafa’s H2H advantage comes from two overlapping things: his advantage on clay, which is well recognized as a completely different surface than any other. And the fact that most of their matches have come with Rafa in his prime and Roger in his post-prime.

    Roger’s consistency, above all, puts him head and shoulders better than Rafa. His streak of consecutive Grand Slam semis, and then quarter finals, dwarfs that of Rafa. In his many years in the limelight, Roger has, what, one single flameout in the early rounds of a major? Compare that with Rafa.

    Anyway, this is such a great rivalry, and what’s so amazing is just as Joe describes it: you can root for either of these guys but it’s so damn hard to root against them.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I mostly agree with what you’re saying, but that Head to Head record is a giant chink in Federer’s armor. I don’t agree that Rafa beat Federer when Federer was old. Nadal beat Federer the first time they played back in 2004 and again in 2005. Nadal also beat Federer 4 of 6 times in 2006. Federer was in his prime, in his early to mid 20s, then.

      On surfaces, Nadal does have a big advantage on clay. But he also has a better record against Federer on hard courts. Federer has a 2-1 advantage on grass. The fact is, there are clay court tournaments. The fact that Nadal is GREAT on clay is feature of his career, not a bug. It’s not like he’s just some typical Euro clay court specialist. He’s really good on all surfaces.

      So all the career grand slam wins and that kind of thing does speak to Federer being the GOAT. It’s really hard to argue the point. But Nadal has had Federer’s number pretty much his whole career, and almost every individual year as long as they’ve played…. on almost every surface except for a small Federer advantage on grass courts.

      • DavidB says:

        nah, it’s 10 to 10 off clay, and Nadal is down 26-23 to Djokovic head to head while Federer is even at 23 with Novak despite being nearly 6 years older. So if/when Djoker runs down Nadal in majors (needs two more to tie Nadal) Nadal will be behind Djoker let alone Federer. I mean Djoker already has more Masters 1000 level titles than Nadal, and Djoker has won the year end Tour Finals round robin tourney which Nadal has never won as well.

        The Nadal over Fed or Djoker arguments are silly. There are what, at least 12-15 clay tourneys each year, which of course is the surface completely tailored to Nadal’s PED-ridden grindy game. Then Fed’s top surface is grass which there are 3 tourneys each year because no top players are playing that Newport tourney a day after Wimbledon concludes. That’s a huge advantage for Nadal without even getting into when Fed was closer to his prime, Nadal was simply being drubbed in the faster court tourneys so he was never around to be beaten by Fed when Federer was in his prime. Meanwhile Federer is still a top 8 or so clay court player all-time so he was always around to be beaten by Nadal. That’s not an apples/oranges argument. That was what it was.

        In 2005-2007 when Nadal should have been starting his prime, he won one tournament of consequence off of clay (2007 Indian Wells). And 2007 is when the ATP really started slowing down the hardcourts to combat all the 6’5 140 mph huge servers. Go look at the guys Nadal was losing to in that 2005-2007 era, Verdasco, Gonzalez, and journeymen like Gilles Muller and Mikhail Youzney in the Round of 32 and the quarters at majors off of clay in that era.

        It wasn’t until 2008 when they really started slowing down all courts (even Wimbledon leaving the grass longer) that Nadal was able break through and that was the era which has enabled the defense-first, stand 10 feet behind the baseline, get into extended rallies and completely rely on trying to force errors from one’s opponent rather than the traditional attacking/shot-making tennis that is the only watchable version of the sport. That’s why no one really cares about the Djokovic/Murray rivalry, or the Djoker/Nadal rivalry which has occurred twice as frequently as the Federer/Nadal head to head. The difference there is that Djoker and Murray play the exact same style and Nadal is more or less the same as well so everyone has seen that movie before, and it’s boring.

        Nadal isn’t of Fed’s generation, Nadal’s real peers are Djoker, Murray, and Wawrinka who are all 29-30 years old. It’s still folly to compare these two in the same manner in which it’s completely stupid to compare what Serena did compared to what Navratilova, Evert or BJK did in their era when no one was really going to the Aussie Open back then, and when Serena has faced zero legit competition over the last 6 years since Clijsters and Henin shuffled off into motherhood/retirement.

    • Bryan says:

      The GOAT argument for Nadal has firm footing by the end of the 2010 season during which he wins 3 majors. It peaks at the 2011 French Open during which Nadal turns 25 and wins his 10th major (6 Fr, 2 Wim, 1 Aus, 1 US). Federer “only” has 8 when he turns 25 (4 Wim, 2 Aus, 2 US).
      So both have 4 grand slam singles titles other than their best surface (clay/grass), Nadal has the head-to-head edge partly powered by clay but also the incredible match at 2008 Wimbledon where Nadal takes Federer down on his best surface. Federer does have a French Open win by the time Nadal turns 25 but it’s Soderling who is the first ever to beat Nadal at the French.
      After turning 25 Federer wins 8 of the next 14 majors (3 US, 2 Wim, 2 Aus, 1 Fr), it’s assumed Nadal will have a similar career arc instead Nadal “only” wins 4 (3 Fr, 1 US). Federer adds another Wimbledon title a month before his 31st birthday and just added another Australian Open title.
      6-0 Tour Finals wins for Federer, 4-1 Davis Cup for Nadal, Nadal’s 2008 Gold Medal vs Federer’s 2012 Silver Medal, Federer 89-69 in career titles and anything else other than Grand Slam singles titles and head-to-head tends not to have much traction in GOAT discussions.
      Which leaves Nadal’s GOAT case relying on head-to-head and claiming Federer lucked out to collect 12 grand slam singles titles in 2007 or earlier during which time there lacked another elite player while Nadal plays his entire career with peak Federer and/or Djokokic around and maybe even Murray would have won a bunch of grand slam singles titles if he had been born in 1981 and Federer in 1987.
      It’s much easier to project Nadal continuing to dominate after 2010 or Djokovic after 2011 or Murray when he won 2013 Wimbledon and had the 2012 Gold Medal and US Open to go with it or Djokovic after 2015-16 than it is for a player to continue to win multiple majors per year.
      If Djokovic wins at least 1 of the next 3 majors there will be continuing discussion about his GOAT status with Federer’s 18th major merely proving that Djokovic has many years left even though he turns 30 before the next major and only Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall have won more than 2 male grand slam singles titles after their 30th birthdays so far.

    • Ian says:

      I completely agree with you and I remember reading Poz and thinking, “huh?” Fed’s the GOAT.

  3. Rob Smith says:

    When Federer was first starting, when he was first into the Top 20, or so, I was working on my pathetic game with a tennis pro who had recently retired from the tour. I think at one point the guy may have been in the Top 50. If you followed tennis, you would have heard of him, though barely. He had a low opinion of Federer because he said that Federer had no personality and had zero interests in anything besides tennis. He referred to Federer as boring guy with no interests. He said such a person is not good for tennis. Too boring. I think he was fairly accurate in saying Federer was a pretty boring guy and, at the time, didn’t have other interests. I’m not sure that he has many interests now and that’s probably why he’s still playing. But, of course, he was great for tennis. And my tennis pro…. well, he did well for himself, but he probably didn’t have the dedication required to get past the Top 50. The reality is that few of us would.

  4. Kevin Fitzgerald says:

    Joe, I completely understand why you want to stick at home and focus on baseball. Travel, for whatever, is never better than famiky. But keep writing this stuff. Your perspective on champions in any sport contains angles and insights like no other sportswriter.

  5. SteveC says:

    I appreciate that Joe writes about tennis and can start these discussions. I’m a Federer fan, but they’re both spectacular. The GOAT talk is fun, because it will never be settled, but it also seems like the need to determine this is a recent phenomenon. It’s not enough to watch great players – they have to be the absolute best. It’s about eras, and they’re all different. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that the Australian Open became wide-played, so slam totals become somewhat skewed.

    I disagree with Joe’s contention that you can somehow root both for and against Federer. You can appreciate both guys and realize how great a match it is, but Federer fans want Federer to win. I think Nadal fans feel likewise. You want great rallies and drama. You don’t want it to end, just as long as your guy comes out on top.

    As for their head-to-head, I think court speed has been the huge factor. When it’s fast and the ball stays low, Federer has usually won. When it’s slow and the ball can jump, it’s Nadal. I haven’t done specific research, but I’d say the courts tend to the slower end. There are also more clay tournaments than grass, essentially a three-week season. Nadal without question dominates clay, and that affects the numbers, but if you take out their 15 clay matches – a big if – their head-to-head is 10-10. It just adds to the argument.

    I also think court speed was a key element in the final and the whole tournament. The play was faster and it was easier to hit winners, as opposed to in the past. I wish Joe had touched upon it. It certainly gave Federer a needed edge in the victory. Regardless of who you prefer, one good consequence was that a five-set match could be played in just over three hours. I don’t think five-hour marathons have done the sport any favors.

    • Bryan says:

      Volume of content. Sports Illustrated comes out once a week and there will be a bunch of sporting events to cover, between the Super Bowl and March Madness is the most likely time for a broader topic like is Nicklaus or Palmer (or Bobby Jones or …) the greatest.
      Now there are so many articles blogged and otherwise available that if Bryce Harper has an amazing half season in 2015 (339/464/704) he’s worth $500 million and he’s probably a better player than Mike Trout. In the 2nd half Harper “only” hits 320/457/586 while Votto hits 362/535/617 as in he reached base over half the time for half a season, since 1961 and min 200 PA in a half season Barry Bonds did that 8 times including in both halves of both 2002 and 2004, the other 4 players are 1962 1st half Mantle, 1994 1st half Frank Thomas and 2006 2nd half Ryan Howard.
      Ted Williams did it 9 times including both halves of 1941. Babe Ruth did it 13 times including both halves of 1920, 1921, 1923, 1924 and 1926. Going back to 1913 no one else did that more than 3 times, going back farther Ty Cobb most likely did but Play Index only goes back to 1913 for split searches.
      Votto is already signed to a long term contract that ends with an option year in 2024 and was already in his Age 31 season so the hype train is hard to get going for a guy with amazing plate discipline and/or no batting order protection on a 64-98 team as well as doing it in the 2nd half. If that’s his first half and then Votto hits 277/392/484 in the second half to reverse his season then Votto at least gets on the first to hit .400 since 1941 hype train.

      • NRW says:

        What does this have to do with Fed / tennis?

        • Bryan says:

          Replying to “The GOAT talk is fun, because it will never be settled, but it also seems like the need to determine this is a recent phenomenon.”
          Nadal isn’t a clear example of this since he’s one of the most accomplished male players in tennis history and being 5 years younger especially if he wins the French this year it would certainly be a credible article if someone predicted that Nadal would finish his career with more grand slam singles titles than Federer.
          Harper is a recent example of a player who had various GOAT type articles written about him at a time when he hadn’t accomplished much.

    • moviegoer74 says:

      Court speed has been a massive factor. Wimbledon, the US open and Australia all play slower than they did in the 80s/90s/early 2000s. Wimbledon is the most notable. It’s just not nearly as fast as it used to be. Intentionally so.

      And it’s for the better. Wimbledon had become almost unwatchable. Due mostly to ever-improving raquet technology, in the 90s it was an ace and service-winner festival. Rallies were virtually non-existent. It was boring. So they slowed it up. And now Wimbledon plays very differently. And has for 10+ years now. The tennis is much more entertaining.

      The same is true of the US and Australia, although the difference in how they play now vs. then is not as pronounced.

      But that effect has been very much to the benefit of Rafa (and Djokovic and Murray, to a lesser extent). I seriously doubt that Rafa could’ve won at Wimbledon the way it played in the 90s.

      The flip side is that there’s not a doubt in my mind that Lendl would’ve managed to win Wimbledon at least once if it played in the 80s the way it plays now.

      • invitro says:

        In my fantasy world, Ivan Lendl is the GoAT.

      • Ed says:

        I agree to an extent, but not entirely.

        I think Wimbledon being slowed down some was good for the reasons you mentioned, but I don’t think the slowing of the hard courts has been good. It created a generation of players who all play exactly the same type of tennis, and leads to 5 hour marathon matches that aren’t always that GOOD, they just last forever. I don’t want to see someone hit 60 aces, but I also don’t want to watch guys stand behind the baseline and hit at each other for 30 shot rallies on every point.

        Variety is needed, both in play styles and court surfaces, for tennis to really flourish IMO.

        • DavidB says:

          slower courts are both bad and good. Good because they’ll slow down the courts for the huge serve/huge forehand types who are one or two dimensional players (Isner, Berdych, Raonic etc). But bad for those of us who find the defense-first, stand 10 feet behind the baseline, wait around for unforced errors- Lendl style of play that is incredibly boring to watch when two of those types are facing one another…Djoker vs Murray, one of those vs Nadal, one of those three vs Ferrer, Nishikori plays the same style etc. So slowing down the courts has produced a war of attrition as opposed to actual tennis skill. Current tennis, save for a few players like Fed, Dimitrov, and a few others is the tennis equivalent of trap hockey. That’s why everyone outside of Nadal and Djokovic fanboys & girls love Fed so much. He plays a classic shot-making style that completely runs opposite to that Lendl PED-infused dreck and the reason why HGH and EPO are so rampant in tennis these days.

      • Tony says:

        That’s what they said about Borg. He couldn’t serve and volley so he couldn’t compete at Wimbledon

  6. BillM says:

    Fed & Rafa are 10-10 when you leave out the clay matches, of which Rafa is the GOAT by a Secretariat like margin. One underappreciated check in Rafa’s column is the gold medal in singles; IIRC Rafa, Agassi, Steffi, & Serena only ones with career Golden Slam.

    As for the boxing analogy, trainer Eddie Futch gave an in-depth interview once where he explained how he trained Frazier & Ken Norton to fight Ali.

    • DavidB says:

      true, but you can also subtract a point for Nadal having never won the year end Tour Finals round robin tourney with the top 8 players going head to head. That must account for something for The Nadal, given that Uncle Toni has complained that the tourney is never played on clay.

  7. Marc Schneider says:

    I think Federer’s record against Nadal is a problem in terms of being the GOAT but I would have a hard time saying Nadal is the GOAT. As someone mentioned, the vast majority of his majors have been on clay, where his style of play works better. I love watching Nadal play because he is such a fierce competitor, but I think a lot of players would have beaten him on non-clay surfaces (e.g., Sampras, McEnroe). I actually think it’s a tribute to his determination that he has won as many majors on non-clay surfaces as he has given how poorly his game fits on those surfaces. He has to kill himself to succeed on faster surfaces. As it was, the surface in Australia this year was apparently very fast, which clearly gave Federer the edge-and even then he barely won. I’m glad Federer won, largely because I didn’t want him to end his career without beating Nadal again, but Nadal is a marvel. Federer, though, to me has the more classic and more well-rounded game and I think would be tougher against guys like Sampras and Johnny Mac if they played in the each of their primes.

  8. MikeN says:

    Nadal suffered injuries letting Fed get a few more slams including that one French open, and keeping his own total lower.

    • SteveC says:

      Mike, injuries? Federer had mono in 2008. They’re not excuses. They’re part of sports. The winner is the one who’s the best at the end of the tournament, not who’s best when healthiest. I think Nadal is a monster competitor but I also think he’s always gotten too much leeway for his injuries. He can never just lose. There has to be some reason he loses. But there’s always a reason that someone loses. Conversely, I don’t think Federer’s injuries are as taken into account. He doesn’t play a punishing style – which is Nadal’s choice – but the guy still has played hurt. I just don’t think he makes such a big deal of it.

    • McKingford says:

      Oh, hell no. Nadal doesn’t get to play like he does and then complain about injuries. Fed’s ability to stay healthy is part of his game. And Nadal’s penchant for injury is a product of his game. Nadal’s style is to win a war of attrition, which is great in the short term, but is killer on the body.

      Using Nadal’s injuries as an excuse for fewer slams is like saying Steph Curry would have a better shooting percentage if he didn’t shoot so many 3s.

  9. Federer is just the epitome of class. There were subtle hints of gamesmanship in the fifth set but they were such minor details that even though they almost certainly impacted the momentum of the match the way in which they were approached felt classy. Rafa wasn’t really taking too long between points (especially not relative to early years), the crowd was just too loud; of course Federer still managed to keep his game going at a faster pace anyway; but a simple note to the ref and 2-0 fades away. Clearly a mental error on Nadal’s part but a graceful reproach from Federer swings the match.

  10. MikeN says:

    Watch the old tennis matches between McEnroe and Borg. How would Nadal and Federer have done with wooden rackets and their fast shots gone?

    • SteveC says:

      My guess is just fine. Great players would succeed in any era, because they have talent and can adapt. Federer’s not a huge hitter but he’s had to deal with them, along with new strings that give more spin, and he’s remained near the top. The same question could be asked about Borg and McEnroe. How would they do with in today’s bigger, faster game?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *