Nadal v Federer Wimbledon 2008 – tennis from another world

one handed backhand

Simply put, the Nadal v Federer Wimbledon final 2008, exemplified the reason we all love this sport. The breathtaking level of tennis was equalled by the flawless way these two gladiators carried themselves in the face of untold expectation and pressure.

It’s almost unimaginable what it takes for Nadal to walk through the French Open, win at Queens Club and lift his first Wimbledon trophy – all in the space of 1 month. Staggering!

The Match

Whilst a Nadal v Federer final was rarely in doubt, everyone seemed to have an opinion as to whether “Federer would bear too many scars from Paris”, “Nadal was now destined to win”, “Federer would up his game to defend his beloved title” etc.

For a couple of sets, Federer appeared to be trying to raise the bar a little more than he was capable of on the day. He obviously knew that nothing less than to throw his full armoury at Rafa would get the win. Let’s face it, Rafa eats for breakfast those players who play carefully against him. Nevertheless, it wasn’t working for Federer as he was making more errors than normal. Having said that, Federer kept plugging away and somehow dragged himself back into the match.

The Comeback

It was as intriguing to see how Rafa dealt with the increasing pressure as Federer clawed his way back. Rafa was obviously becoming increasingly nervous as he missed a lot of chances and even match points, and Federer knew this. Like a boxer who cuts his opponent and nails the cut with more blows, Federer could see the cracks and was punishing them with ferocious forehands.

With a darkening sky overhead and the centre court crowd on a knife edge, Rafa showed us all an iron will that must have his fellow pros quaking in their Nike shoes. He just put his head down and battled for his life. Many of his groundstrokes were now landing shorter and his serve was losing some pace but he still managed to run and grind until finally in near darkness, the cracks appeared in the mighty Federer. All it took was a couple of poor shots from Federer and some magic from Rafa and the game was over.

The manner in which Federer was so graceful in defeat, was matched by the way Rafa was so humble in victory. These two guys are the best thing that has happened to tennis for many years. Long may their friendly rivalry continue.

The great Rafael Nadal backhand

nadal backhand

When we think of Rafael Nadal we immediately think of his amazing forehand, but don’t underestimate the Rafael Nadal backhand. Nobody wins 3 French Opens on the bounce without possessing a fabulous backhand.

Technique

He is blessed with a very simple and uncomplicated back-swing. Like all the top pros, Nadal can shorten the swing when needed and turn the shot into whatever abbreviation is called for. When he has the time, he’ll unleash the follow-through over his shoulder with breathtaking speed. (see ‘Service return – when to abbreviate the drive!‘)

He has fantastic hand skills and racket head control, which enables him to produce outrageous passing shots from ridiculously difficult angles. Of course his deft movement helps make this feasible. Rafa has that inbuilt ability to scrap one last shot out of a rally when he’s under pressure and 9 times out of 10 he’ll punish his opponent with it. He uses the open stance slide with great effect on the clay and adapts brilliantly for the unfamiliar grass. (see ‘Two-handed backhand – the step in or open stance debate!‘)

Tactics

It’s fascinating to see how he adapts his backhand from clay to grass. On clay he hits masses of topspin with a lot of net clearance and is not as concerned about pin-point length. He hits lower with deeper length on grass and a little less topspin.

Like Borg before him, Rafa is surprisingly comfortable on grass due partly to his great service return and passing shots. He likes a target and so is happy to see his opponent at the net.

Rafa demonstrates superb racket head control allowing him to pull the ball short and wide with great whip. This is often the set-up shot, as these angles leave him with an open court to blast his trademark winner.

He possesses an excellent drop shot which is played with great disguise. The fact that his slice shot is technically great, makes the transition to a drop shot look easy.

Like so many of today’s top pros, Rafa spends the majority of his time hitting massive forehands from every part of the court, but his backhand certainly plays a fantastic supporting role.

I can’t help thinking that there just might be a few more Grand Slam titles in the pipeline for this young star. Good luck to him – he deserves every bit of his success.

Load early (racket back) but not too early

I have always been a believer in loading early for the backhand, though I’m also very aware that a racket taken back too early is unnatural. Late preparation leads to all sorts of problems. It becomes incredibly difficult to strike the ball comfortably if you prepare too late (unless you have flawless timing).

Dictate the ball

A late struck ball requires something special to get you out of jail. Don’t let the ball dictate you, you dictate the ball or you’ll end up muscling the shot. Remember, when I talk about early loading I ‘m not suggesting that you run around with your racket back all the time – this spoils the rhythm.

Venus Williams is a great example of someone who prepares early with great results, and watch how well Federer loads as he runs for a backhand. Steffi Graf on the other hand prepared her forehand late but what a great shot that was! It at times looked ’snatchy’ but she had perfected it.

I once watched Venus Williams practicing for Wimbledon. Her father was encouraging her to exaggerate how early she prepared. She was getting used to the fast surface and needed to work on her timing. He was suggesting that she prepare extra early to give herself the best chance possible on the lush grass. Once she’d got her eye in, she didn’t need to exaggerate as much. (I’m certainly not going to disagree with a man who coached two little girls to win a phenomenal number of grand slams between them!!).

Loading early, great footwork and an alert mind will keep that ball in your comfort zone. A ball struck in the natural path of the follow-through is much more likely to be struck sweetly and accurately, than a ball that’s jamming your body.

This is tennis not wrestling!!

Good luck!

Learning the one-handed backhand grip

one handed backhand

An easy way to position your hand correctly for the single-handed backhand grip is as follows;

  • hold your racket at the throat in your opposite hand (left for right handers), and have the handle pointing at your body
  • place your racket hand on the grip in an old style shake hands position
  • Whilst continuing to hold the throat with your opposite hand, rotate the thumb of your racket hand downwards a quarter of a turn and grip the handle

You should now find your your hand is more behind the handle ready for the all important support for the backhand shot. Rotating the thumb slightly further round the handle will help with topspin. When you begin learning the slice you’ll discover that the grip doesn’t need to be as far round as for the drive/topspin.

If you are having problems finding your new grip when changing from a forehand to backhand grip, just hold your backhand grip and practice only backhands until it becomes second nature. It will then be easier to find the new grip position when changing shots.

Backhand knee bend – the secret ingredient

Gasquet Backhand

Connors, Henin, Agassi, Cash, etc etc all have something in common – great backhand knee bend. Connors was the master at anchoring his legs low down when ripping his backhand drive.

Why is this important?

Knee bend on all low shots is so important because it enables the technique to be more secure. So much of the power of the modern shot comes through the body from the legs. My coach was a huge advocate of good knee bend and in fact, if ever I was playing below par (too often I’m afraid), I would use this as my first port of call. “Are you bending your knees enough”? I’d ask myself mid match – invariably this reminder would help to get things back on track.

Some years back I was coaching a very good British Davis Cup player who regularly practised with Pat Cash. When on court with them I was amazed at how well Pat got down to the ball. At times on low backhands and low backhand volleys his left knee was nearly on the ground (just like Korea’s HT Lee in this picture). If ever you want to see an example of great backhand knee bend, watch a re-run of Cash beating Lendl in the Wimbledon final. Amazing!

Remember this! Bad knee bend = flimsy technique.

Keep your head still when striking the backhand – just like Federer!

A common mistake on the backhand is an over-eagerness to look for the result of the shot, before the shot is finished.

Like hitting a golf shot and kicking a ball in soccer, the backhand requires you to keep your head still when striking the ball, avoiding the temptation to follow the ball with your eyes as soon as it leaves your racquet. Lifting your head too soon on the backhand will result in the top half of your body leaning back, causing you to lose control of the shot.

NB. Don’t be afraid to exagerate this a touch – fixing your head in the ball contact position a bit longer than you think is necessary.

As the image below of Roger Federer shows, his head is still fixed in the contact position long after the ball has gone. As the racquet extends over his right shoulder he will then look towards the opponent’s end of the court. But not before!

Stronger foundations for the backhand with a still head!

There is no comparison between the foundations and balance of a correctly struck ball with a still head, and one in which the head looks up too soon. The correctly struck shot will have a strong core running through it compared to the flimsy, head flipping option. The incorrect version will also encourage the chest to fully open and face the net too soon, which is wrong!

Trust the result of your shot!

The secret to keeping your head still on contact (assuming your ball position is correct) is to trust the result of your shot. So often the reason for looking for the result too soon is a lack of belief in the result and a doubt as to whether it will land in the court. This lack of belief and the resulting head lift is so often the reason the shot goes wrong – a kind of self fulfilling prophecy!

Summary

Whether you are double or single-handed, a still head on contact will result in a stronger, safer and more accurate shot.

Is your practice partner giving you enough backhands?

rochus

Sometimes a club player’s backhand struggles to improve because they just don’t get to hit enough of the shots. It’s amazing how few backhands are sometimes struck in a typical club standard practice session. Hitting to forehands seems to be preferred much of the time because the rallies will be better and last longer. Try to recognize when this is happening and if this is the case, politely ask your playing partner to steer a few more towards your backhand. Maybe then you’ll have a chance to improve it!

Is your ball position correct on your single-handed topspin backhand?

henman backhand

An incorrect ball position is often at the heart of a badly struck single-handed backhand and some simple steps can often overcome this common problem.

What is the correct ball position for the single-handed topspin backhand?

The first thing to be aware of, is what is considered the correct ball position. Whilst the height of the ball will vary depending on court surface etc., we still want to keep the ball comfortably in front and to the side of the body on contact. The image below of me striking an average height ball (and the examples of different contact zones) will help you visualise this, but to simplify things think of the following – an ideal ball position at contact will allow you to make your follow-through in a comfortable, smooth, uninterupted manor. You will be totally in control of the ball, not the ball (therefore your opponent) in control of you. Too close to you and you will be jammed therefore having to re-shape your follow-through to make it work, too far away and you will over-reach. If this rule is followed you will be able to execute the type of spin and direction that you choose.

N.B. Notice in the image of me below (and the pros further down the page), that the correct contact point away from the body, allows the hitting arm to be fully straight on impact!

Of course the ball will not just magically end up in this perfect position, you will need to address the points in the following checklist to make this happen:

1. Always be alert and ready for what your opponent might do to the ball. The speed, the spin and the height of the ball, will all need to be addressed. A sharp mind also helps sharp feet!

2. Keep up the high energy – sluggish footwork will have a bad effect on your ball positioning, great footwork will help bundles!

3. Good shot selection is of paramount importance. Trying to squeeze in a full drive when a block or abreviated drive was called for will be asking for trouble.

4. Prepare and follow-through in good time. If this part of the shot is out of sync the ball will tie you up in knots.

5. Really watch the ball, don’t just kid yourself that you are. This will give you that split second advantage and help anticipation.

6. Take note of the wind and the court surface as they will have a huge impact on the ball’s behaviour.

Remember – The more often you allow your opponent to make you strike the ball uncomfortably, the more often you will either make an error or leave the ball short for your opponent to kill!

Another thing to consider is this: why do the top pros look so comfortable and consistent when striking the ball compared to the average club player? The answer is that they address the points in the list above and on the whole strike the ball in the optimum position. Of course if they don’t quite get it right, they are great at improvising to get themselves out of trouble.

The Pros

Here’s Federer, Vilas and Robredo showing us how to do it. (Notice how Robredo still keeps the ball out in front even though the ball is higher!)

Good luck

Is this the Craziest Tennis Racket of all Time?

You must take a look at these brothers and their two handled tennis racket invention.

They say that because they can hit groundstrokes with either their left or right hands, the two handled tennis weapon benefits them. At first I thought this was a wind up but no – this is for real!

You must check this film and the service action of one of the brothers (it comes down at a healthy 135mph).