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Federer Backhand Slice Analysis Essay

“I’m definitely feeling better,” Federer said. “Today I feel 50 percent better than I did two days ago.”

The next challenge after a day of rest: a date with Grigor Dimitrov on Wimbledon’s so-called Manic Monday, when all the men’s and women’s fourth-round singles matches are played in a civilized rush.

Dimitrov shares a playing style and a management agency with Federer, but their résumés have very little in common beyond that. Federer is chasing his 19th Grand Slam singles title. Dimitrov is still chasing his first, and he is 0-5 against Federer, although they have never played an official match on grass.

Federer has now played 98 singles matches at Wimbledon, and has won 87, more than any other man in the Open era. Saturday’s victory was a throwback, with Zverev serving and volleying and inspiring some of the same from Federer.

All tennis is fast-twitch tennis these days, with the power of the players and the equipment. But Federer versus Zverev was only intermittently supersonic. There were baseline rallies on Federer’s service games, exchanges that seemed languid in comparison with the grip-it-and-rip-it approach now in vogue. Federer and Zverev traded sliced backhands, giving spectators ample time to appreciate the ball in flight.

Zverev has fine touch, feathery footwork and an artisanal forehand that is more of a poke than a stroke. Against nearly all other opponents, he would have been the flashiest player on the grass on Saturday. But Federer remains No. 1 in that category, even if he is seeded No. 3 at the All England Club.

Saturday was not quite full flight for him, but there were plenty of flourishes. Above all, he did an exemplary job of putting the ball again and again in an awkward position for Zverev — the outer limit of his reach, the top of his leap, the tips of his toes.

Federer has already proved that he can learn new tennis tricks at an advanced age, having come back from knee surgery and a six-month layoff, the longest of his career, to win the Australian Open in January. He has already proved that he can drive his single-handed backhand with new commitment and find an antidote to Nadal, having beaten him three straight times on hardcourts this year.

But winning his eighth Wimbledon title, and his first since 2012, will require plenty more legerdemain and staying power. If he beats Dimitrov, Federer will face either Milos Raonic, a finalist here last year, or Zverev’s outrageously talented younger brother, Alexander, in the quarterfinals. Past that, Federer is likely to face Djokovic, who continued to show signs of resurgence in his straight-sets victory over Ernests Gulbis on Saturday.

Calling Federer a clear favorite seems a stretch, but he is certainly a crowd favorite. After his victory on Saturday, the usual horde awaited him below the pedestrian bridge near Centre Court, camera phones at the ready.

Federer soon appeared on the bridge, holding his arms wide and smiling down at a following he has acquired over 19 Wimbledons.

He exited the stage, but the crowd wanted more and began chanting, “Roger.” Marcus Willis, the unlikely British qualifier who reached the main draw in singles last year and is still in contention in doubles this year, seized the moment instead: He walked onto the bridge and did his best arms-outstretched Federer impression for the fans.

“You’ve got to milk it while you can,” Willis said with a wink as he walked toward the players’ garden.

For Federer, however, the big moment never seems to end.

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What leaves you shaking your head is that Federer coughed up 19 backhand return errors for the match, even though it was obvious where the serve was going to go. Nadal committed 11 backhand return errors.

Nadal and Federer last played each other on an outdoor hardcourt last summer in the quarterfinals of the Cincinnati Masters. Nadal won, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3. He directed a healthy 87 percent (57 of 65) of first serves to Federer’s backhand in that match, with Federer winning 24 percent (14 of 57) but only committing 6 backhand return errors.

In Cincinnati, Federer sliced 43 percent of his backhand returns (25 of 57); in Melbourne he sliced only 11 percent (6 of 51) in an apparent effort to be more offensive to begin the point. But Federer is missing the point: It’s not how he hits it, but where that matters more.

Nadal is always prowling for a forehand as his first shot after the serve, and Friday’s semifinal was true to form. Nadal hit a forehand after a serve 72 percent of the time, winning 73 percent of those points. It’s the most lethal one-two combination in the sport, and Federer can’t stop it. In Cincinnati, Nadal hit a serve and a forehand 75 percent of the time, winning 70 percent of those points.

Those kinds of numbers define a career and create a legend.

Federer’s second major hole in the semifinal was his forehand. He needed it to be his biggest weapon, but it was his biggest weakness. Federer had 30 forehand errors, the most for a ground stroke on either side of the net. Federer hit 13 forehand winners to Nadal’s 9, but only two came in the opening set, seven in the second set and four in the last set.

The horse had already bolted.

Twenty of Federer’s forehand errors were committed in the deuce court, where Nadal often had Federer running hard to hit his forehand defensively under great pressure.

Federer’s third big hole for the match was approaching; he won only 16 of 35 net points. His determination to attack was commendable, but the strategy behind it was doomed from the beginning.

Federer dominated approaching to Nadal’s backhand as expected, but he was repeatedly crushed when approaching to Nadal’s wicked heavy topspin forehand. Federer won 14 of 19 points approaching to Nadal’s backhand, so why didn’t he do it more?

While the match looked close at the beginning, the pressure was silently building as Federer searched in vain for holes in Nadal’s game. For Federer to beat Nadal in such an important occasion, he needed to win the first set and apply scoreboard pressure, hit rock-solid backhand returns back to Nadal’s backhand, and stop approaching to Nadal’s forehand. That will at least get him on a level playing field.

Stefan Edberg, Federer’s new coach, will be pleased with an in-form run to the semifinals, but Nadal is simply a different animal, someone who exposes all the current warts in Federer’s game.

Craig O’Shannessy directs a tennis strategy analysis company called the Brain Game and runs the Brain Game Tennis Academy in Austin, Tex. He can be followed on Twitter at @braingametennis.

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Correction: January 26, 2014

An earlier version of this article misstated the score in the third set. It was 6-3, not 6-4. 

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