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:
— Jack Nicklaus (@jacknicklaus) January 29, 2017
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.