#21 Backhand Line

Your forehand buys the million dollar house.

Your backhand down the line puts the Ferrari in the driveway.

 2012 London Final: Novak Djokovic def Roger Federer 7-6 (6), 7-5 

Re-direction in the Ad Court was Novak’s masterplan.

This a perfect example of one of the best players in the game changing tactics to get the W. Roger won the previous match in Cincinnati 6-0, 7-6(7) by owning the Ad court with his run around forehand. That match is an example in our Run Around Forehand Golden Rule here. 

  • LEFT PICTURE –  As I watched this match unfold I immediately picked up on Novak’s change of strategy. He was pounding Roger’s forehand in the deuce court instead of trying to find the backhand in the Ad court. This produced a whopping 80% of Roger’s forehand errors in the deuce court.
  • MIDDLE PICTURE – Novak in particular was trying to pressure Roger in Position A. As you can see from the graphic 70% (21/30) of Roger’s forehand errors were standing closer to the sideline than the center line. Novak was punishing him out wide.
  • RIGHT PICTURE – Once I broke down all of Roger’s deuce court errors the truth appeared. Roger made more forehand errors from a shot coming from Novak’s backhand (8) than either a run around forehand (7) or a deuce court forehand (6). This was an all out assault with backhands down the line and an excellent change of strategy from Cincinnati.
Djokovic only won one more point (96 to 95) than Federer for the match and his persistence with this winning strategy was the real difference maker.  His most spectacular backhand down the line came on match point when he ripped a passing shot from well behind the baseline to win the title. It was vintage Djokovic as he was on the dead run sliding outside the singles line but somehow managed to create an offensive shot when his court and body position clearly dictated otherwise.

Federer was constantly troubled by Djokovic changing direction with his backhand in their Ad court exchanges as Federer much prefers to camp on the backhand side and build the point with his forehand rather than get into a running, side-to-side battle.

Federer’s forehand was the victim of Djokovic’s clever strategy as Federer hit nine winners but racked up a costly 36 errors on his more potent wing. Djokovic, by comparison, hit eight forehand winners but only made 20 forehand errors.

Of the 36 errors Federer made on his forehand, 80% (29) came in the deuce court and only 20% (7) in the Ad court.

Djokovic’s tactic was simple – avoid letting Federer dictate Ad court rallies with his forehand by taking his backhand down the line, which also put Federer’s forehand under more pressure on the run in the deuce court.

Here’s how it works.

 2014 Australian Open Final: Na Li def. Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (3) 6-0 

 Li Na’s backhand down the line was the most dominant shot on the court in this Grand Slam final.

Dominika Cibulkova is a lightning-quick opponent who thrives on getting one more ball back in play but Li’s excellent court position on or inside the baseline and the extra power off the backhand wing simply took Cibulkova’s speed out of the equation. Only eight points in the opening set and three in the second set lasted longer than 10 shots, which is not normal in the women’s game unless your name is Williams or Sharapova. The match was actually closer than the straight-sets result indicated as Cibulkova won 33 percent of the games (excluding the tiebreak) but held the lead at various stages in 77 percent (14/18) of the games. Li’s 10 backhand down the line winners helped her get the small separation she needed for victory as seven of the ten came with the point score tied in the game. Li’s backhand also demanded respect with the return of serve as Cibulkova directed 38 first serves to Li’s forehand and only 11 to the backhand.

  • 17 Backhand Winners –  Li’s backhand was exceptional in the final, hitting the most winners of any shot on the court.
  • 10 Down The Line – Li’ stepped forward and crushed 10 backhand winners down the line – the difference maker.
  • Started Early – The match was only eight points old at deuce in the first game  when Li crushed her first backhand down the line to help her break serve as Cibulkova double faulted on the next  point. Li was at it again at 30-30 in the next game with another down the line winner to help her jump out to an early 2-0 lead.

 2013 Wimbledon Rd 1: Novak Djokovic defeated Florian Mayer 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 

A perfect way to attack a funky forehand. 

Djokovic’s strategy was simple – rush Mayer’s huge backswing on his forehand or make him have to hit it on the dead run after hitting a backhand in the Ad court. Quite often Mayer had to resort to a squash-like slice to try and simply stay in the point. In a close match that only featured one break of serve in each set, it was Mayer’s forehand that received the most heat from the world number one. When Mayer had time to hit the windmill he was money.

He was only credited with three unforced errors off his forehand wing for the entire match, which is normally more than good enough against most opponents. But that stat was of little concern to Djokovic. Djokovic was not about to wait for Mayer to miss – he was going to make it happen himself. Djokovic’s assault of crushing forehands and pin-point down the line backhands forced Mayer into 19 forehand errors which was by far the biggest number, winner or error, to be found anywhere on the IBM match stat sheet.

In the first set Djokovic directed 65 percent of all his backhands down the line to attack Mayer’s forehand on the run.

 It was convenient for Djokovic to be able to match up a favorite weapon against his opponent’s biggest weakness. Mayer’s backhand strategy in the first set was quite the opposite – he did all he could to stay in a backhand to backhand exchange in the Ad court, hitting 77% of his backhands cross court and hardly ever pressuring Djokovic’s forehand by going down the line. The rough part for Mayer was that of his 25 total winners for the match he could only conjure up one solitary forehand winner from the back of the court.

 2013 US Open Final: Serena Willliams def. Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 

There was one shot that stood tall for Williams in this windy final – her backhand. 

Williams won her fifth title in New York and 17th overall Grand Slam title primarily because of this dominant weapon. Williams’ backhand was the most dominant shot on the court, racking up 13 winners (11 baseline – 2 return) which was more than any other stroke on either side of the net.  

  • Williams hit seven backhand winners cross court and four down the line.
  • When Azarenka made a forehand error the majority of the time it was also from a shot launched from William’s backhand wing.
  • Azarenka committed 28 forehand errors, with 53 percent (15/28) coming from a Williams backhand down the line.
  • More than 60 percent (30/49) of all of Azarenka’s groundstroke errors from the back of the court resulted from Williams’ backhand.
  • Williams dominated the bruising Ad court, backhand-to-backhand exchanges with 71 percent (15/21) of Azarenka’s backhand errors coming directly from a William’s backhand.

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

This was a masterful tactic from Wawrinka that was a crushing blow to Nadal every time it landed.

Wawrinka hit it for the first time at 1-1 40-15 off a low backhand slice down the line from Nadal to win the game with a huge exclamation point. He hit it like a rocket as a passing shot in the following game that Nadal could not handle which led to the first break of serve of the match. The next time he used it was with Nadal serving at 1-4 30-15 where Wawrinka crushed three consecutive backhands cross court then pulled the trigger down the line for a spectacular winner. Just the threat of having such a huge weapon without always using it creates doubt and uncertainty in Nadal’s baseline movement and shot selection.

 2014 Brisbane Final: Serena Williams def. Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 7-5 

Tennis strategy can be ridiculously simple at times – even when the two best players in the world compete against each other.

Williams won little battles all over the court but none more important than dominating the direction of baseline rallies away from her opponent’s stronger backhand in the Ad court.

Hawk-Eye metrics uncovered Williams’s primary forehand strategy where she directed 67 percent of forehands cross court to Azarenka’s forehand and only 33 percent down the line to the backhand. Williams finished with six forehand winners and 11 errors (-5 total) while Azarenka managed four forehand winners but was forced into committing 15 errors (-11 total).

This primary forehand strategy was strongly supported from the backhand wing as Williams amazingly hit more backhands down the line (to Azarenka’s forehand) in the match than cross court.

Williams constantly tried to control the direction of baseline exchanges to keep probing at Azarenka’s forehand from all directions of the court. Williams hit a remarkable 54 percent of total backhands down the line, including a crushing winner to break serve at 5-5 in the second set to surge towards the finish line.

Azarenka on the other hand was looking to play as much Ad court tennis as possible. Azarenka hit 60% of her backhands cross court to Williams’ backhand, saving her lethal backhand down the line as a secondary tactic. Azarenka’s forehand was mainly used to redirect traffic down the line (to Williams’ backhand) where she hit 58 percent of her forehands trying to manipulate the direction of the rally in her favor.

 2013 Shanghai Final: Novak Djokovic def. J.M. Del Potro 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (3) 

Juan Martin Del Potro moves better to his backhand. 

That’s why taking a backhand down the line to his forehand hurts him so much. Djokovic’s incredible backhand down the line was a highlight of the match as he looked to stretch Del Potro deep into his forehand corner. Often times your opponent may have a bigger forehand, but if they don’t move as well in that direction, or they move backwards at an angle, then that can be exploited.

Djokovic had eleven backhand winners and eight of them went straight down the line against the Argentinian.

Djokovic’s backhand down the line was a difference maker in this final, moving him to a 20-match win streak in China and back-to-back titles at the China Open in Beijing and the Shanghai Masters for the second straight year. He’s also now won seven titles overall in China which is the most he has won in any country.

Go Do This

Make sure you are up around the baseline or inside it to pull the trigger down the line. 

Add spin (topspin or backspin) to add more control to this directional weapon.

Remember it’s a shorter court & a higher net. Focus on getting it up and down quickly.

Run a lot of primary cross courts first and then secondary down the line will be wide open.

Don’t let the scoreboard pressure the shot. Do it on your terms. 

An excellent way to attack an opponent with an erratic forehand.

Be balanced and hit through the shot. Keep extending forward through the contact zone.