#20 Backhand Cage

Here’s how it works.

There may be no better example of the backhand cage on the planet than when Nadal plays Federer.

In Rafa’s book, Rafa, he sums it up so well.

If I have to hit the ball 20 times to Federer’s backhand, I’ll hit it 20 times, not 19. If I have to wait for the rally to stretch to 10 shots or 12 or 15 to bide my chance to hit a winner, I’ll wait. There are moments when you have a chance to go for a winning drive, but you have a 70 percent chance of succeeding; you wait five shots more and your odds will have improved to 85 percent. So be alert, be patient, don’t be rash. Rafael Nadal

Nadal hammers away at the backhand and that is what the Backhand Cage is all about. Keep your opponent in it. At best they can get back to neutral.

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

For Roger and Rafa it’s all about finding 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) while Federer’s backhand accounted for two winners and 45 errors (26 groundstroke – 19 return).

In heavy weight battles like these, the role of the forehand is to win the match while the role of the backhand is not to lose it. It’s about finding a slight weakness on the court and turning a small crack at the start of the match into a cavern by the end.

Federer played aggressively and attacked more than normal on the quicker center court in Cincinnati and got close to victory when leading 7-5, 3-3 and 0-30 on Nadal’s serve. The snapshot of the 0-30 point paints a broader picture of the match strategy, particularly as points like this one take on greater importance to the final outcome.

Pivotal Point – Attack the Cage

Down love thirty, Nadal hit a high percentage jam first serve to Federer’s backhand then pounded two more forehands to Federer’s backhand before finishing at the net with a forehand volley. Nadal matched up a serve, two forehands and a volley against a backhand return and two more backhands. The odds for Nadal are simply overwhelming. In the biggest moments in their 31 match head-to-head rivalry this pattern has played itself out countless times on different continents all over the world.

At 15-30 Nadal again served to Federer’s backhand and played behind for a forehand winner. The 30-30 point featured a 20-shot rally with both players desperate to hit forehands with Federer barely missing a forehand winner down the line. An inch difference and Federer could well be living to fight another day. Nadal clinched the game when Federer netted a backhand cross court.

Federer also got to 30-all at 4-4 in the second set but once again it was two more backhand errors that stopped Federer in his tracks.

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.

Federer’s two backhand winners both came in the first set with one of them sealing set point at 6-5, 40-15 with a crushing topspin cross court winner for the ages. Nadal’s four backhand winners included two passing shots and two deft lob winners over Federer’s head.

 2013 London: Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer 7-5, 6-3 

The backhand cage worked like a dream again for Rafa.

Roger Federer was constantly stuck deep in the Ad court by Nadal’s heavy forehand, committing 14 backhand errors for the match (Nadal had 10). Federer loves nothing more than to turn backhands into forehands in the Ad court but Nadal did everything possible to shut it down.

  • Set 1 – Federer hit 47 backhands in the Ad court and was only able to create 14 run around forehands.
  • Set 2 – Federer hit 31 backhands in the second set and still managed only 14 run-around forehands.
  • Overall Federer hit 78 backhands and 85 forehands for the match which is basically even which is a death sentence for Federer against Nadal.

Once Nadal has got Federer stuck in the backhand cage he then develops the smart secondary tactic of running Federer hard to the deuce court to try and extract Forehand on-the-run errors. Federer made 20 forehand errors for the match, with 12 of them coming standing in the deuce court.

 2013 Madrid: Rafael Nadal def. Stanislas Wawrinka 6-2, 6-4 

Rafael Nadal captured his third Mutua Madrid Open title the traditional way – by breaking down his opponent’s backhand.

Nadal defeated Stanislas Wawrinka 6-2 6-4 in the final by primarily taking his heavy forehand high with spin to his opponent’s one-handed backhand with devastating results.

Wawrinka committed 22 backhand errors (15 groundstroke – 7 return) for the match compared to Nadal’s five (four groundstroke – 1 return) which created a domino effect of control all over the court.

Wawrinka said after the match that Nadal’s forehand repeatedly pounding away at his backhand was the difference in the final outcome. “[Nadal’s] a lefty and puts so much topspin on his forehand, so I have to [play my] backhand always high,” Wawrinka said. “So I need to have the perfect timing to play a strong shot. You could see today [that] if I don’t have the legs to get there, I have no chance to come back in the point.”

It was Nadal’s forehand that repeatedly pushed his opponent deep behind the baseline into the backhand cage that the most credit for Wawrinka’s backhand errors.

Nadal Forcing a Wawrinka Backhand Error

Forcing ShotWawrinka Backhand Errors
Nadal's Forehand10
Nadal's Backhand 3
Nadal's Volley 2

Wawrinka got off to a rough start, winning only six points in the opening three games but the early hole was not caused by his backhand as he made his first 23 of the match without an error. But six mistakes out of his next 13 backhands saw the first set slide away quickly, giving Nadal confidence controlling the Ad court and keeping Wawrinka in the cage.

Overall Wawrinka made more than four times the backhand errors than Nadal (22 to 5) and hit an almost identical number of forehand and backhand groundstrokes for the match. Nadal’s control over Wawrinka’s backhand subsequently gave him control of the entire court.

Total Groundstrokes 

Total Groundstrokes Nadal Wawrinka
Forehands 86 (60%)74 (50%)
Backhands 55 (40%)73 (50%)

Nadal’s primary pattern is to control the Ad court with his forehand high to his opponent’s backhand, and the strategy is ideal for Nadal when the opponent has a one-handed backhand and the ball is jumping in sunny, warm conditions like it was in Madrid for the final.

Factor in it was also Wawrinka’s ninth match in 10 days after defeating Spaniard, David Ferrer, in the final of the ATP250 Portugal Open and the leg strength needed to beat Nadal in a Masters final on home soil was not what it needed to be.

Nadal’s backhand stood tall under pressure with two groundstroke winners and only four groundstroke errors against Wawrinka. Nadal was also better than Wawrinka at turning backhands into forehands in the opposite court to protect the weaker wing. Nadal hit nine forehand winners for the match with five coming standing in the Ad court and four in the deuce court. Wawrinka hit six forehand winners for the match with three each coming standing in the deuce and Ad court.

 2013 Monte Carlo Final: Novak Djokovic def. Rafael Nadal 6-2, 7-6 (1) 

Novak Djokovic finally got Rafael Nadal’s backhand to buckle.

Djokovic was able to put Nadal in the backhand cage for a change.

Djokovic pressured Nadal into 28 backhand ground stroke and return errors which was the same number Nadal committed in four sets in the 2012 French Open final – the last time they played against each other on clay.

It also represents almost a five-time increase in the amount of backhand errors Nadal made from the 2012 Monte Carlo final against Djokovic. Nadal only made six backhand errors to beat Djokovic 6-3, 6-1.

Djokovic was able to pick on Nadal’s backhand by taking his own backhand down the line as well as controlling their deuce court exchanges with penetrating cross court forehands. This is not a new strategy for Djokovic – just one he executed a little better and Nadal had a lot more trouble with. With Djokovic leading 6-2, 1-0 a Hawk-Eye graphic showed Djokovic was hitting 48% of his backhands down the line to attack Nadal’s backhand.

Nadal Backhand Numbers

Nadal Backhands 2013 Monte Carlo 2012 Monte Carlo 2012 French Open
Winner/Score Djokovic 6-1 7-6 (1)Nadal 6-3, 6-1 Nadal 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5
Backhand Errors22623
Backhand Return Errors 605
Backhand Winners 124
Backhand Return Winners 010

Djokovic got more than a third (35%) of his total points in yesterday’s final from attacking Nadal’s backhand. This represents almost double the amount as a percentage of total points from the 2012 French Open final and more than triple the 2012 Monte Carlo final.

Nadal Backhand Errors vs. Total Points Played

Nadal Backhands 2013 Monte Carlo 2012 Monte Carlo 2012 French Open
Error % of Total Points 20% (28/139) 6% (6/86) 11% (28/241)

Djokovic’s success with his deuce court tactic also had the added benefit of reducing the amount of run around forehands in the deuce court Nadal got to hit. Nadal hit nine forehand winners for the match, with five of them coming when Nadal was standing in the deuce court or even all the way outside the alley in the deuce court to hit a forehand. But Nadal did not have the same urgency as he normally does to turn backhands into forehands, especially with his venomous Serve + 1 tactic where he looks to hit a forehand as the very first groundstroke after his serve.

When Nadal started the point with the combination of a serve and then a backhand he only won two points for the entire match.

Evidence of Nadal not getting early control of the point was evident with Djokovic winning 10 of the first 12 points when the rally lasted less than 5 shots. Djokovic was able to double team Nadal’s backhand with his more superior backhand and strong forehands cross court. Djokovic also dominated the longer points during the final – winning 23/36 (63%) of rallies lasting 10 shots or more. That used to be unthinkable.

This was a match that Nadal started poorly and finished even worse. Djokovic won 25 of the first 37 points (67%) to start the match and 11 of the last 12 (91%) to end it. Nadal did take a 4-2 lead in the second set and also served for the set at 6-5 but was broken to love.

 2014 Australian Open Final: Stanislas Wawrinka def. Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 

Stan is now the man Down Under.

Wawrinka constantly put Nadal on defense hitting his backhand out wide behind the alley in deuce court exchanges which had three main benefits for Wawrinka:

  • Nadal had no backhand winners in the first 11 games.
  • Wawrinka broke Nadal for the first time at 1-1 15-40 with one of these excessively wide rally balls that Nadal could only manage to slice back, bouncing before the net.
  • If Nadal went down the line he was exposed cross court on the next shot with Wawrinka’s big one-handed backhand.

It’s not often that Nadal is on the receiving end of the backhand cage lesson but this was certainly one of those times.

Go Do This

Your opponent can make one backhand. What about 2 in a row? Or 3, or 4? 5? I don’t think so.

If you have to hit 20 balls to break it down – you hit 20 balls to break it down. 

Hammer away and be patient. The error typically comes later, not earlier.

Most times the best a player in the cage can do is get back to neutral. Reset and attack again.

Don’t change directions without hurting your opponent – that let’s them out of the cage.

It’s all about control. You can’t control anything in the cage pushed back deep behind the baseline.