#16 Sword & Shield

 2012 U.S. Open Analytics 

Groundstroke Winners 

Want the cold hard facts about baseline play? Well, here they are. Make sure you are sitting down.


Forehand winners = 2271
Backhand winners = 1084

 Forehand Winners = 68% 

 Backhand Winners = 32% 


Forehand winners = 1327
Backhand winners = 720

 Forehand Winners = 65% 

 Backhand Winners = 35% 

These numbers are staggering and completely prove that the modern game, for both men and women, is dictated by the forehand. This clearly shows which is the primary and which is the secondary weapon. Gotta have a good forehand!

 Player Focus – Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic 

Who’s better from the back at the 2012 US Open – Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic?

Strokes Andy MurrayNovak Djokovic
Forehand Winners 9582
Forehand Unforced Errors 9566
Backhand Winners 7447
Backhand Unforced Errors 9797
It definitely appears that Andy Murray has more firepower from the back of the court with 177 forehand and backhand winners to Djokovic’s 121. That’s definitely part of the story. The other part is the errors. Murray made 192 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 163. Here’s your equation. Andy Murray  177 (winners) – 192 (unforced errors) = -15 Novak Djokovic  121 (winners) – 163 (unforced errors) = -42

 2012 Roland Garros Final – the ultimate Sword & Shield battle 

The 2012 French Open final was an epic battle between over two days and four amazing sets.

While most times the sword gets the credit for victory, this time it was the shield (backhand) of Nadal that greatly contributed to adding a seventh title in Paris and his 11th Grand Slam title. Defense won the title and it was his backhand that time and time again repelled everything that was thrown against it. Nadal’s backhand over 4 sets

  • 4 winners.
  • More importantly – only 23 errors.
The 4 Backhand Winners – all came at a time to either create or convert a break point.

First – It was a cross court laser with both feet outside the alley to reach break point in the frst game of the match. Talk about sending a message!

Second – This one was a drop shot winner to get to set point in the opening set in a rally that featured nine backhands and three forehands for Nadal.

Third – The third winner was on set point to take the second set. Clutch.

Fourth – This was a passing shot to critically get back on serve at 2-2 in the fourth set. Djokovic spent most of the match standing on or around the baseline hammering away at Nadal’s backhand to either wound him to draw the error or to create an open hole in the Ad court to hit a winner later in the rally. Djokovic hit 18 forehand groundstroke winners with exactly half of them (9) coming from hitting to Nadal’s backhand first and then hitting a winner standing in the Ad court through the vacant hole cross court to Nadal’s forehand.

Forehands Rafael Nadal Novak Djokovic
Groundstroke Winners 2218
Return Winners 01
Groundstroke Errors 3731
Return Errors 76
Backhands Rafael Nadal Novak Djokovic
Groundstroke Winners 48
Return Winners 02
Groundstroke Errors 2337
Return Errors 511
Nadal only giving up three ground stroke errors and one return error from 1-2 in the fourth set. Nadal would not make any backhand errors (or winners) in the last four games of the match from 4-3. On Monday, Djokovic was able to get it more to Nadal’s backhand when he was serving, making him hit 53 backhands in five service games due to the initial control of the point with his serve.

But when Nadal served, he was able to keep Djokovic away from his backhand far more effectively. Nadal served four times in the fourth set, and only hit 16 backhands in those four service games. That enabled him to use his sword a lot more when serving, where he hit 36 forehands for four winners and only one error.

In all Monday play, Nadal was able to hit 91 forehands and only 69 backhands (including returns) which gave him more control, created more pressure, and contributed heavily to his victory. Nadal’s backhand often does not get the recognition it should as it is not always clear what role it actually performs in battle.

On Monday it was almost impenetrable. In the last four games of the match Rafa hit 29 backhands for no errors. During that same period, he hit 34 forehands for two winners and four errors.

Longest Point Of The Tournament It was 44 shots and occurred at the start of the fourth set with Nadal serving at 15-15. Djokovic controlled the shot direction of the entire point, making Nadal have to hit 16 backhands and only six forehands. Djokovic would strike at the backhand first and if it didn’t falter, would then hunt for a winner wide to Nadal’s forehand in the Ad court.

Djokovic made Nadal hit nine backhands in the last 10 shots of that rally before Nadal finally put a backhand in the net stretched wide in the alley in the deuce court. It took 16 heavy blows to Nadal’s shield before it yielded an error, producing one of the greatest points in the history of the French Open and highlighted just how much both players were willing to suffer to win a solitary point.

  2014 Wimbledon Final: Novak Djokovic def. Roger Federer 6-7(7), 6-4, 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-4  

Backhands don’t normally perform as well as this.

A key element of Novak Djokovic’s victory in the Wimbledon final was the incredible performance from his backhand side. Djokovic’s backhand was the critical factor with baseline control as he used it to constantly change the direction of the rally, altering the flow of control and power from the back of the court.

  • Djokovic hit 18 backhand winners to Federer’s four.
  • Djokovic hit 24 forehand winners to 19.
  • Djokovic committed 41 total backhand errors to Federer’s 50.
  • Djokovic committed 10 backhand errors in sets 1, 2 and 4, but he locked down in set three for only six errors.

IBM’s Aggressive Analysis: a measure of a shot’s power, direction, depth and point of origin on the court, highlighted Federer’s slight edge with bigger forehands, hitting 75 to 69 for the match. But when it came to backhands, Djokovic was in a class all of his own, dominating 58 to 34.

Baseline Control:  Djokovic won 48 per cent (93/193) of points that he finished at the baseline, mainly because of his rock-solid backhand, while Federer could only manage 40 per cent (65/161) when he was at the baseline when a point ended.

Fifth Set: with the title completely up for grabs, the Serb’s backhand was amazing – committing only five backhand errors.

If you want an A+ performance out of your backhand then these are numbers that it is going to produce. On occassion, Rafal Nadal has attacked the Djokovic forehand side much more because of this strength. Federer would have been better off trading forehand to forehand more and taking Djokovic’s backhand out of the equation.

 2012 Miami Final: Andy Murray def. David Ferrer 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1) 

Andy Murray made David Ferrer cramp. That is not a typo.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone in the world out-grinding Ferrer but that’s how Murray won the Miami final over the ultra-fit Ferrer. Murray hit more backhands than forehands, hit the ball slower, played deeper in the court, came to the net less and got broken eight times but at the end of the day somehow got the job done in one of the most punishing hard court finals you could imagine. Ferrer could have easily been the victor as he held match point and stopped the rally to challenge a call but the Hawk-Eye review showed Murray’s shot was right through the line.

Murray played a far more defensive, error filled match than normal but one of the tests of true champions is the ability to get the done when you are not at the top of your game. The match ended up as a last man standing affair and an exhausted, resilient Murray did the unthinkable of beating the world’s best grinder at his own game.

Strategy Breakdown Andy Murray David Ferrer
Total Forehands 277297
Total Backhands 305277
Backhand Winners 51
Backhand Errors 3227
Backhand Return Errors 89
Forehand Winners 94
Forehand Return Winners 20
Forehand Errors 3134
Forehand Return Errors 89
Even though Murray has one of the best backhands in the world he typically will look to upgrade to a more potent forehand at every opportunity. For example, Murray hit 56% forehands in his semi-final win against Richard Gasquet including 55 run around forehands in the Ad court. But against Ferrer, Murray settled for backhands far too often in the Ad court which had a negative effect on the rest of his game and was a major contributor to the match being so close and physical.

In short, Murray’s overuse of his backhand hurt him far more than it helped him. It also directly helped his opponent turn more backhands into forehands and create a much more even contest. Ferrer also has one of the best backhands in the world but is always on the prowl in the Ad court to upgrade to a forehand. In his semi-final victory over Tommy Haas, Ferrer dominated with 69% forehands for the match which helped restrict Haas to hitting only hitting 37% forehands.

That’s a winning strategy every day of the week that leads to more tennis being played on Sunday afternoons. Credit must go to Ferrer for making Murray hit more backhands than forehands, but Murray must also take the blame for not being tenacious enough to control the back of the court with his bigger forehand weapon.

Ferrer had the slight edge when the points were shorter but Murray got the better of him in the longer, grinding exchanges. When the points were 10 shots or less Ferrer won 82 to Murray’s 78 but Murray won 28 points when they were extended past 10 shots to Ferrer’s 19. At 3-3 in the third set we had the highly unusual statistic that there were 11 holds of serve and 13 breaks of serve.

Both players directed exactly 64% of total groundstrokes through the Ad court, pounding away at their opponent’s backhand wing.  Surprisingly Ferrer was hitting the bigger ball, with his average groundstroke speed at 73mph compared to Murray’s 71mph.

 2013 Indian Wells Final: Rafael Nadal def. Andy Murray def. J.M. Del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 

This match featured 88% forehand winners from the back of the court. 

Rafael Nadal defeated Juan Martin Del Potro in one of the greatest examples in the modern era that the forehand is clearly the ultimate weapon of choice in today’s game. Nadal and Del Potro combined to hit 40 forehand winners and only five backhand winners.

  •  56% of total points (100 of 177) ending with either a forehand winner or error.
  • Nadal dominated with 22 forehand winners, hitting eight in both of the opening two sets and finishing with six in the deciding set.
  •  Del Potro hit 18 forehand winners with six in the first set, five in the second and seven in the deciding set.

 2013 Cincinnati Qtrs: Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 

For Roger and Rafa it’s an obsession to find the backhand.

No other tactic matters nearly as much in this magical match-up as the simple pattern of pressuring the opponent’s backhand until it breaks. In a match that featured 70 per cent total errors (138 errors – 58 winners) more than half (74) of the errors from all strokes were from the backhand wing of both players.

  •  Nadal’s backhand was relatively more solid with 4 winners and 29 errors (21 groundstroke – 8 return).
  • Federer’s backhand accounted for two winners and 45 errors (26 groundstroke – 19 return).
  •  Federer’s 26 groundstroke backhand errors were overwhelmingly forced by Nadal’s forehand. Nadal pressured 19 from his forehand, six from his backhand and one from an overhead and a volley.
Nadal’s heavy forehand proved once again to be the perfect battering ram to attack Federer’s one-handed backhand.

 2012 US Open Rd 16: David Ferrer def. Richard Gasquet 7-5, 7-6 (2), 6-4 

Forehands beat backhands. Even the world’s best backhands. 

Gasquet has one of the best backhands on the planet and loves to take big cuts at the ball with his raking one-hander. It makes sense when you look at an IBM stat sheet and see Gasquet leads the US Open with backhand winners with 45. By comparison, Novak Djokovic, who is also in the conversation for world’s greatest backhand, has only 24 and is ranked 10th in this area for the tournament.

Gasquet has been playing well in New York. As the point lengthens Gasquet gets comfortable and backs up half way to the Lourve to hit the some of the smoothest backhands you will ever lay eyes on. He has no urgency to change the backhand dominated pattern and seems content to hit it until the cows come home. But Ferrer has other plans – forehand plans. Ferrer’s backhand is good – but it’s not that good.

Ferrer has 28 backhand winners for the tournament, ranking him 8th on that list, 17 behind Gasquet. Ferrer wants to set an ambush in the ad court, waiting for the right moment to turn the mathematics of the point in his favor. Ferrer wants a forehand. Ferrer always, always wants a forehand. Ferrer has 57 forehand winners so far in the tournament, which ranks him 6th in this category – ahead of seven of the other 10 remaining players left in the tournament.

Quite simply, Ferrer can’t wait to use his “57” forehand weapon against Gasquet’s “45” backhand weapon. Ferrer ended up with 18 forehand winners for the match to Gasquet’s six. Gasquet held the edge with backhand winners with 13 to eight but the slight margins in the match statistically fall Ferrer’s way because he is seeking a mathematically better way to construct his points. If you want to admire living, breathing art, then there may be no better use of your time than watching Gasquet hit his exquisite backhand.

If you want to understand the small margins and percentages that win matches, then watch Ferrer going about his work setting a  forehand ambush in the Ad court. He is a master tactician enjoying the best season of his entire career.

Go Do This

Your forehand is your weapon. Sharpen your weapon every day!

Spend 80% of your time developing strengths. Spend 20% of your time fixing weaknesses. 

Know the role of the backhand. It is going to get attacked. The better shield you have the longer you survive.

Why attack someone with a shield, when with a little footwork, you can attack them with a sword?

Better to have a solid backhand than a spectacular one. Make it a rock.

Tennis is a mental and physical battle. Your forehand is sword that greatly dictates the rules of engagement.