From his tour debut in 1998 to playing at the 2020 Australian Open, Roger Federer’s single-handed backhand has evolved. It is a shot that has varied with his mental state and physical capabilities. It also impacted how he played the game as a whole.
Here, I explore Federer's various backhands at different stages of his career and how this altered match tactics. In turn, this may give us clues as to how Federer can best approach his game for 2021 as we look forward to the new season.
Young Federer (1998-2004)
From 1998 to 2004, Federer hit an aggressive backhand with little topspin. Young and free from inhibition, he had the conviction to take the ball early, driving with a high finish above the head. He pushed against his non-dominant shoulder, spreading both arms behind him, minimally turning his chest towards the court.
The result was a flat and hard shot that was used to finish points quickly. Soon after the rally started, Federer would suddenly hit down the line for a winner or draw an error, as shown in his 2002 Hamburg title run. The conviction on the backhand side offered remarkable shot tolerance and enabled him to make half-volleys from the baseline to stay in the point.
Looking at the 2004 US Open, it is clear that Federer was transitioning to a backhand with greater topspin, rotating his chest towards the court as he hit. Keen to use the backhand more as a rally ball, Federer would wait until he could dictate with the more powerful forehand.
Often he would establish a backhand exchange, only to then move around for a penetrating inside-out forehand. The backhand was still used to actively hit winners but more so when Federer had plenty of space to play with where speed wasn’t necessary. Federer would serve out-wide on the deuce side then calmly place a backhand into the open court, as used in the 2007 Australian Open semi-finals against Andy Roddick.
After the 2008 Wimbledon Final loss, Federer’s topspin backhand relied increasingly on his mental state. Overall, he hit the shot with less conviction, depending heavily on his shoulders' rotation and the hitting arm for power compared with his legs.
In drawn-out rallies, Federer would abandon the groundstroke and default to the backhand slice. While this had always been used for tactical variation, the backhand side now played a slightly less offensive role than before.
The groundstroke still produced winners, and there were patches like the 2014 Shanghai Masters where Federer was mentally prepared to be consistently aggressive with it. But in the main, the backhand had become a smaller force in point-construction.
The Comeback (2017-2018)
After a six-month break from surgery, Federer rejoined the tour physically refreshed and mentally free without the weight of expectation. Federer worked with his coach Ivan Lubiĉić on a flatter, hard, and early backhand in the interim. He returned to his initial technique, spreading both arms behind him, rising on his right leg loaded with power.
The “neo-backhand” is widely credited as having won Federer the 2017 Australian Open as he was able to keep points short, hitting winners off the return of serve and creating sharp angles early in rallies. Most importantly, Federer could neutralise Nadal’s forehand in the final with such a powerful and flat shot. The backhand helped gain him further titles, including that year’s Wimbledon and the 2018 Australian Open.
Wimbledon and beyond (2019-2021)
Federer has not used the backhand to attack as much in recent years, opting for a gentler topspin shot instead. In the 2019 Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic, Federer did use the backhand confidently for winners. But in the last set, perhaps feeling tense, he increasingly went to the more defensive slice.
The neo-backhand did, however, make a brief appearance earlier at the 2019 Miami Open. Certainly, this is the most potent version of Federer’s backhands, and returning to such a shot would significantly boost his chances for 2021. The prolonged break after surgery last year may well afford him that opportunity.