As Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer prepared for their thirtieth meeting, a familiar sense of nostalgia grew inside tennis fans. Still very much among the top three best players in the game – rankings notwithstanding – Federer and Nadal were once the undisputed rulers of the tennis world. They’ve given us classics, drama, and dominance, and their rivalry transcended the sport. Despite the lack of animosity, it has been so universally appealing in large part due to the contrast in styles. Beyond how they look, dress, and act, it was the way they play that was so different, and therefore, so captivating.
And yet, despite the multiple nuances in their games, the different attributes, and the very few weaknesses, both Federer and Nadal made a living off one particular weapon – the forehand. Their games couldn’t be more different: Federer was always more complete, more aggressive-minded, had a better serve, took more offensive court positioning, and attacked the net; Nadal was a one-of-a-kind physical specimen, a defensive wall, stood farther behind the baseline, and took control of points through engaging in longer rallies where he would gradually wear out his opponent. None of that changes the fact that, regardless of the adjustments they’ve made throughout the years – Nadal has become more aggressive and well-rounded; Federer had to readjust some aspects of his game to better operate with age – when push came to shove, they cemented their spots in tennis history due to their respective forehands.
Like the rest of their games, their forehands bore very few similarities: Different grips, different spins, and a different follow-through. And yet, whether Federer was running around his backhand to hit an inside out winner, or Nadal was pummeling his opponent’s weaker wing relentlessly, the result was often the same. In what will inevitably go down as the “Fedal era,” one of the most memorable phases in tennis history will be defined by one shot.
Increased racquet technology, homogenization of the surfaces, and the rise of a new breed of phenomenal athletes have altered the game considerably, with serve and volley taking a backseat to a noticeable shift towards baseline tennis. The change has been characterized by a strong emphasis on the forehand. In fact, it is hardly a coincidence that the last couple of world number one’s before the Federer era were Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Roddick, two men who, in their heyday, possessed two of the most lethal forehands on tour. And yet, fearsome as those shots were, they paled by comparison to the brilliance that the Swiss Maestro’s racquet would later produce.
Simply put, Roger Federer’s forehand revolutionized the sport. Widely tipped to be the greatest ground stroke in tennis history, Federer re-set the standards of what constitutes a world-class forehand. It wasn’t merely his ability to fire winners off that side that set him apart – after all, James Blake, Fernando Gonzalez, and Andy Roddick hardly struggled to rip out inside-out bullets – but rather, Federer’s combination of power, spin, versatility, taking the ball early, and the ability to hit it on the run that made him a nightmare to deal with.
None of this would be possible had it not been for Federer’s most characteristic trait: his otherworldly movement. Federer’s ability to glide effortlessly on a tennis court was poetry in motion. He always put himself in perfect position to take the ball precisely when he meant to, and the results were devastating. The mixture of movement, precision, and taking the ball on the rise rendered his forehand near unplayable. Lleyton Hewitt had laid the foundations a couple of years earlier by running circles around his opponents, but he lacked the necessary weapons and offensive tools. Federer, on the other hand, didn’t.
In fairness, cat-like quickness wasn’t exclusive to Federer, as the man who previously dominated the world of tennis, Pete Sampras, remains one of the best athletes the sport has ever seen. Meanwhile, the likes of Davydenko, Blake, the above mentioned Hewitt, and others were all great movers in their own right. However, Federer’s footwork was so utterly unique in its fluidity, quickness, smoothness, and efficiency.
Then came Rafael Nadal, arguably the greatest pure athlete in tennis history. He redefined the word “speed,” covered every inch of the court like nobody before him, displayed unprecedented levels of explosiveness, and showed a level of physicality that no one else could match. When he first burst onto the scene, Nadal’s game was, to put it bluntly, fairly limited. His serve was harmless, his backhand was solid but, ultimately, did little offensive damage — beyond the trademark open-stance passing shots — and his return of serve was meant to neutralize points above anything else (which applies even today).
If there is a prime example of how great movement and an elite forehand dominate today’s men’s game, it’s Nadal. Better than anyone in history, he was able to mask his weaknesses with a dominant forehand and unparalleled movement. Even more so than Federer, Nadal based much of his game around running around his backhand wing. However, the Spaniard lacked his rival’s serve and variety, making his forehand an even more integral part of his game.
His entire early success is attributed almost entirely to his forehand and movement. Even as his game developed into something far more polished, Nadal’s bread-and-butter remained intact. Unlike anyone else, Federer included, Nadal is able to find his forehand wing time and time again. The amount of effort required to run around his backhand at every possible opportunity meant the Mallorcan had to work particularly hard in each rally, but Nadal was all too willing to make the effort. Like Federer, his forehand is actually deadlier from his backhand wing, where he can put it pretty much anywhere on the court. Once Nadal is able to find a forehand early in the rally, unless your name was Novak Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko, and a select others, you weren’t wrestling the point away from him.
The man who ultimately broke the Fedal monopoly was, unsurprisingly, Novak Djokovic. Long tipped to be the future of tennis, the Serb may have differed from his great rivals in that he possessed one of the best backhands the games has ever seen — a shot many deem to be his strongest. However, it wasn’t until Djokovic recaptured the magic on his forehand side that he became the world’s finest player. Following a very strong 2008, Djokovic’s results became increasingly inconsistent. The reasons were numerous, from struggles with fitness, focus, and serve, but above all else, it was his forehand that grew more erratic, and the results underwhelmed accordingly.
Djokovic moves as well as anyone on a tennis court, but the quality of his backhand provides him with far more options, therefore, he doesn’t need to run around that shot as frequently as Federer and Nadal. And yet, you often see him doing just that these days, to great effect. Good as his backhand is, the basic mechanics of the forehand mean he has more options off that wing. Additionally, Djokovic’s backhand being his better shot often clouds the fact that his forehand is easily one of the best on tour, and when playing well, it is the side that does the bigger damage. Yes, it remains the shot that is more likely to break down and fail him when things go south, as opposed to his always rock solid backhand, but offensively, it is slowly becoming his most potent shot.
A quick look at today’s top 10 players shows just how essential it is to possess a great forehand. Beyond the aforementioned players, almost all of the world’s elite players share a world-class forehand: Ferrer, Berdych, Tsonga, Del Potro, etc. Naturally, there are exceptions, but even those, quite ironically, reinforce the rule. Richard Gasquet, for instance, was initially thought to be destined for greatness, only to fail to live up to the hype, in large part due to his unreliable forehand. Even previous one-of-a-kind shot-makers like Nalbandian and Davydenko occasionally suffered due to an inconsistent forehand.
The most notable aberration, of course, is current world number 2, Andy Murray. Far from being a bad shot, Murray’s forehand remains nevertheless below the level of Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic. However, the Brit is able to make amends through fantastic movement, tennis IQ, tactical awareness, counter-punching, and a backhand that is easily among the very best in the men’s game. Nevertheless, it is hard not to attribute some of his shortcomings to his main rivals’ ability to expose his forehand. Djokovic has repeatedly dominated Murray in forehand-to-forehand cross-court exchanges and drew short replies, Nadal’s flattened-out cross-court backhands and inside out forehand have historically troubled Murray on faster surfaces — surprisingly enough — while Federer’s offensive onslaught has robbed Murray of three additional grand slam titles to his resume.
A quick glance at the current crop of up-and-coming players shows no real candidate that fits the description of a modern day champion — a great mover with a world-class forehand. For now, at least, the status quo at the top of the men’s game seems safe.