Farewell to Roger Federer – and his impressive forehand

If Roger Federer was a carpenter, his serve would be a saw, the handiest tool in the kit. But his forehand? That would be the wood itself. It is that very essence his game.

This was announced by Federer, 41 his retirement last week, marking the end of 24 years of professional tennis, during which he played more than 1,500 games and won 20 Grand Slam tournaments. His final professional game comes this weekend at the Laver Cup in London, a team format event where he will do so play doubles alongside longtime rival Rafael Nadal.

Federer hasn’t won by relying on a single element of his game, but there’s one shot he really took earlier dictate its terms: his forehand. Its finely worked forehand is one of the most admired, examined and copied strokes in the history of the sport. It allowed him to hit opponents – and make them hit themselves.

Some forehands are known for their spin and others for their speed. Federer’s pace, spin, depth and placement combine to produce what he calls a “heavy ball”. It’s a nightmare for opponents because it involves disruptive action and is often outside of their preferred hitting zone. The Federer forehand is one Wonders of Motor Works. His head is as still as a statue upon impact. His twist of the wrist – the Federer flick – results in a lively ball. The precision of his kinetic chain channels energy from his lower body to his upper limbs, creating an elegant yet vicious punch. That piece of forehand — the full-body biomechanics of it — is partly why a knee injury forced his retirement.

When Federer’s forehand worked, it worked. Mark Hodgkinson’s book Fedegraphica found in 2016 that one of Federer’s forehands averaged 75.4mph. His flat forehand, with little or no spin, was moving at an average of 78.11 mph, faster than his typical topspin forehand at 76.06 mph or heavy topspin at 74.08 mph. His topspin forehand averaged about 47 rpm second (less than Nadal’s 55 reps but more than Novak Djokovic’s 45 reps on average). Two separate studies the sampled Federer matches noted that Federer used a forehand in about 45 percent of his rallies; it was concluded that every sixth of those forehands earned Federer the point. He used this ability to hit forehand as his preferred shot with skillful footwork. Hodgkinson found that Federer had to move less yards per point than Nadal or Djokovic at the four Grand Slam tournaments in 2015. (Djokovic won three of the four Grand Slams that year, beating Federer in the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open.)

At this year’s Grand Slams, Federer also hit more forehand winners per set than Djokovic and Andy Murray. And that in a broader sample size of over 550 matches Tennis Summary, Federer hit more forehand winners (9 percent) and forced more mistakes with his forehand (7 percent) than the tour average. In tennis, where margins are tight, his 2 percentage point lead in each of those categories was crucial.

A case study can be found on his grassy fields of glory: Wimbledon, where Federer won eight Grand Slams. A few different metrics show how he beat his opponents’ forehands. The ratio of forehand winners to unforced forehand errors generally takes some getting used to measure aggression. When players hit a shot aggressively, they potentially hit a lot of winners. But if they hit too aggressively, they can make too many unforced errors. The general rule for players is that they should aim to stay afloat (better than 1:1) at this value.

Roger Federer’s forehand was the fiercest in men’s tennis

Roger Federer and his opponents’ ratio of forehand winners to unforced forehand errors in Wimbledon finals won by Federer

Year Opponent opponent ratio Federer ratio
2003 Markus Philippoussis 3:4 10:1
2004 Andy Roddick 1:1 17:11
2005 Andy Roddick 3:10 14:3
2006 Rafael Nadal 3:4 3:4
2007 Rafael Nadal 25:14 19:18
2009 Andy Roddick 10:15 p.m 35:19
2012 Andy Murray 13:12 6:7
2017 Marin Cilic 5:12 3:1

Where possible, relationships are simplified.

Source: IBM

(Interestingly, one of the game’s other epic forehands – that of Nadal, the one who hits that can make an argument for superiority to Federer’s forehand – saw similar or better ratios in winners to unconstrained ratios.)

In those Wimbledon finals, Federer’s forehand shot was his most hit shot, according to Tennis Abstract. He made relatively few unforced forehand errors on those shots. (The backhand is where Federer’s opponents made him commit mistakes). The real trick is understanding how Federer used his forehand to extract errors from his opponent. A fault is the most common ending of a point in tennis. Whether an error was forced or not is a highly subjective measure based on a data collector’s personal judgment.

So, to examine Federer’s forehand, let’s just look at the mistakes his opponents made when playing against him. And besides his forehand there were many.

To compare “how well” a player hit their 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 evenly distributed the kind of errors he elicited from Nadal: he made the Spaniard cough 48 on his forehand side and 49 on his backhand side.

Roger Federer has a winning forehand shot

Roger Federer and his opponents’ ratio of forehand winners to forehand errors in Wimbledon finals won by Federer

Year Opponent opponent relationship Roger Federer ratio
2003 Markus Philippoussis 3:17 10:19
2004 Andy Roddick 3:8 17:35
2005 Andy Roddick 3:25 7:8
2006 Rafael Nadal 1:4 15:38
2007 Rafael Nadal 25:48 19:39
2009 Andy Roddick 22:51 35:66
2012 Andy Murray 1:49 p.m 2:5
2017 Marin Cilic 5:38 2:5

Where possible, relationships are simplified.

Source: IBM

Even after his retirement, the forehand of the Swiss Maestro will live on as a model of efficiency and effectiveness for generations to come.

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