Federer, 41, announced his retirement last week, marking the end of 24 years of professional tennis in which he played more than 1,500 matches and won 20 Grand Slam tournaments. His final professional match will be at this weekend’s Laver Cup in London, a team-format event where he will play doubles alongside longtime rival Rafael Nadal.
Federer didn’t win by relying on a single element of his game, but there is one stroke he used to truly dictate his terms: his forehand. His finely crafted forehand is one of the most admired, examined and copied strokes in the sport’s history. It allowed him to beat opponents — and got them to beat themselves.
Some forehands are known for their spin and some for their speed. Federer’s combined pace, spin, depth and placement to produce what’s called a “heavy ball.” It’s a nightmare for opponents because it comes with disruptive action and is often out of their preferred strike zone. The Federer forehand is a marvel of motorworks. His head is as still as a statue on impact. His turn of the wrist — the Federer flick — yields a lively ball. The precision of his kinetic chain ushers energy from his lower body to his upper limbs, creating an elegant but vicious stroke. This piece of the forehand — the full-body biomechanics of it — is in part why a knee injury has forced his retirement.
When Federer’s forehand worked, it worked. Mark Hodgkinson’s book “Fedegraphica” found in 2016 that one of Federer’s forehands traveled at 75.4 mph on average. His flat forehands, with little or no spin, moved at an average of 78.11 mph, quicker than his typical topspin forehand at 76.06 mph or heavy topspin at 74.08 mph. His topspin forehand averaged roughly 47 revolutions per second (less than Nadal’s 55 rps but more than Novak Djokovic’s 45 rps average). Two separate studies that sampled Federer matches found Federer hit a forehand stroke in around 45 percent of his rallies; one concluded that one out of every six of those forehands won Federer the point. He wielded this ability to hit forehands as his preferred stroke with adroit footwork. Hodgkinson found that Federer had to move fewer meters per point than Nadal or Djokovic in the four 2015 Grand Slam tournaments. (Djokovic won three of the four Grand Slams that year, beating Federer in the finals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.)
In that year’s Grand Slams, Federer also hit more forehand winners per set than Djokovic and Andy Murray. And in a broader sample size of over 550 matches on Tennis Abstract, Federer hit more forehand winners (9 percent) and forced more errors with his forehand (7 percent) than the tour average, respectively. In tennis, where winning margins are narrow, his advantage of 2 percentage points in each of these categories was key.
A case study can be found on his grassy fields of glory: Wimbledon, where Federer captured eight Grand Slams.1 A few different metrics reveal how he bested his opponents’ forehands. The ratio of forehand winners to forehand unforced errors is generally used to measure aggression. If players hit a stroke aggressively, they might be hitting many winners. But if they hit too aggressively, they may commit too many unforced errors. The general rule for players is that they should aim to be above water on this stat (better than 1:1).
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(Interestingly, one of the game’s other epic forehands — that of Nadal, the one stroke that can make a superiority argument to Federer’s forehand — saw similar or better ratios on the winners-to-unforced ratios.)
In these Wimbledon finals, Federer’s forehand drive was his most commonly hit stroke, according to Tennis Abstract. On these shots, he made relatively few forehand unforced errors. (The backhand is where Federer’s opponents were getting him to commit errors). The real trick is understanding how Federer used his forehand to extract errors from his opponent. An error is the most common ending of a point in tennis. Whether an error is forced or unforced is a highly subjective measure based on a data gatherer’s personal judgment.
So to examine Federer’s forehand, let’s simply look at the errors his opponents made when they played him. And off his forehand, there were many.
To compare “how well” a player was hitting his forehand that day, look at the ratio of total forehand winners to total forehand errors (both forced and unforced). In the case of the five-set final with Nadal in 2007, Federer spread evenly the kinds of errors he elicited from Nadal: He got the Spaniard to cough up 48 on his forehand side and 49 on his backhand side.
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Even after his retirement, the Swiss Maestro’s forehand will live on as a model of efficiency and efficacy for generations to come.