The Federer topspin backhand remains one of the iconic shots in tennis. No matter how often you watch Federer unleash one of his topspin backhands, it still makes you smile. Honed over the years, this single handed shot merges brute force and sheer artistry in a ruthlessly efficient way.
It is easy to forget the backhand was viewed as one of Federer’s weaknesses earlier in his career. Hard work has clearly put paid to that. The Federer backhand is now powerful and versatile, capable of unleashing winners from all parts of the court.
Roger Federer’s backhand grip is key to the consistent standard of the backhand he produces. He uses the Eastern backhand grip, slightly modified, to produce his signature topspin backhand drive. The grip, combined with the technique of body rotation, footwork and swing, create a backhand which most tennis coaches use to illustrate just how it should be done.
In this article I shall take an in-depth look at the technique which has seen Federer turn his backhand in to one of the most elegant, yet dangerous shots on the pro tour. This technique begins with the grip Federer uses as the foundation for his backhand.
The Federer Backhand Grip
Roger Federer employs the Eastern backhand grip, which allows him to generate the power as well as the topspin he wants. He may slightly modify this grip when using slice on the backhand, taking the pace off the ball and creating a low bounce for his opponent. The versatile nature of the Eastern backhand grip allows you to play flat shots or big, looping topspin drives.
With the Eastern backhand grip both the knuckle of the index finger and the heel pad of the hand are positioned on bevel one on the racket (source). In this way the index knuckle is in line with the racket frame. The index finger itself is seen to be pointing towards one o’clock when you have the racket held out in front of you.
When you watch Roger Federer play a backhand you may see the index finger is slightly separated from the other fingers on the racket. This probably provides more feel and control on his shots. A further benefit of the Eastern backhand grip is it is an easy one to switch between. This makes it simpler for players to switch from the Eastern backhand grip to one preferred for a forehand, such as the continental grip.
Preparation in the Footwork
There are many elements which go into producing Federer’s elegant backhand. The grip is a key part of the equation, but it is one of the cogs in a very well oiled machine. While Federer is switching his grip, ready to unleash a backhand drive, the rest of his body is preparing itself to deliver the shot. Good footwork is a critical part of the shot preparation process.
When you watch Federer play you will often hear commentators remark on his footwork, and with good reason. It is Federer’s footwork which allows the rest of his body the time to align itself for his backhand. Federer uses large side to side strides to glide across the court to the ball, before his right foot plants in a closed or slightly closed foot stance, with one foot closer to the side line than the other. The further the reach the more closed the stance tends to be.
The importance of Federer’s footwork is it allows him to cover the ground quickly and have those split seconds longer to prepare for the shot. This reduces the risk of him being cramped up on his backhand, and instead he is able to maneuver his body in order to strike freely through the shot.
The Unit Turn
So, Federer’s footwork has delivered him to the ball in time to perfect the shot. Now he needs to rotate the body in the most efficient way to generate the power required through the backhand swing. For this Federer employs a unit turn, a unitary movement of the torso which allows him to generate what seems such effortless power on the backhand side.
When you watch a Federer backhand you see he lightly holds the throat of the racket as he turns the body. This makes it easier for him to turn his shoulders and hips more than he would on the forehand side, helping to generate the power in his backhand. At this point his back is somewhat directed toward the incoming ball, while his chest is pointing towards the back left corner of the court.
In this position Federer is now ideally coiled to unleash his backhand. The versatile Eastern backhand grip, combined with the unit turn, provides fluidity of movement as well as a flexibility in the choice of backhand shot which can be played. Federer is not looking for an outlandish swing. The coil of the body from the unit turn generates the power, with Federer’s racket poised just above shoulder height.
Through to Mid Swing
Federer’s Eastern backhand grip allows him to have a compact swing where the arm tends to remain straight through to the point of contact with the ball. The back swing generated from the unit turn leads directly to the smooth, compact loop of the downward swing. The coil resulting from the position of his body now permits Federer to generate the power on his backhand and the crucial spin (source).
The top arc of the Federer racket is just above the shoulder and also above the anticipated height of the ball he is about to strike. At the mid swing point the head of Federer’s racket will drop below both his hand and the ball. At this point you should keep an eye on Federer’s head.
The rest of Federer’s body may be rotating through the swing, but the one constant is his head, which remains still throughout. The eyes are completely focused on the ball and the point of contact with the racket head. Watching the ball on to the racket is crucial to finding the sweet spot and producing the envisioned shot.
Contact and Follow Through
The arc of the swing finally brings the racket upward to strike the ball. Ideally he will maintain an L-shape with his arm and racket, striking the ball with the racket head parallel to the ground. This is aided by the Eastern backhand grip and the position of his feet in a closed stance.
For one of his trademark backhand drives Federer will generally ensure he has his weight going through his front foot. This helps generate the power and top spin he wants. Normally you will notice just the toes of his back-leg are still in contact with the court surface. This is an indicator that most of the weight has now shifted to the front foot.
The low to high arc of the swing as he strikes the ball creates the top spin. The racket brushes against the back of the ball, all the while remaining parallel to the ground. Federer’s shoulders also remain parallel to the surface as he strikes through the ball.
Through all this the previous two constants remain:
- the eastern backhand grip with the index knuckle on bevel one is still in place
- Federer’s head never moves and his eyes will still be focusing on the point where the racket head meets the ball
The one element which will usually change is the position of the feet. As Federer rotates the torso and swings through the ball with power, you will often see both feet come off the ground as all the weight has been transferred through to the front foot.
This leap is a part of the elegant and much photographed flourish which signals the completion of a Roger Federer backhand. Federer’s shoulders remain square on, yet the arc of the swing required to impart such top spin will see the racket finish up above his shoulders. To counterbalance this movement his left arm points out and behind. It is a striking image, much admired but not easy to replicate.
From start to extravagant finish, this backhand swing is one of, if not the most stylish in the game. Of course with Federer being a champion fixated on winning, the swing is not about the show but the results. It is a by-product of countless hours of practice and fine-tuning, finding the ideal swing for him to utilize the backhand effectively and aggressively against his opponents.
This video gives you a chance to enjoy some classic Roger Federer backhand moments:
The Slice Backhand
While the Federer backhand drive grabs much of the attention, he also possesses a more than useful backhand slice. The sliced backhand is often viewed as a defensive shot, but the spin imparted on the ball can soon put an opponent on the back foot.
Whether in a rally or used while returning serve, the low bounce from a slice backhand return makes it difficult for an opponent to gain control of the rally. The low bounce forces them to hit up through the ball. This makes the backhand slice an ideal approach shot when attacking the net to volley a winner.
Roger Federer slightly adapts his grip for a backhand slice, with the knuckle of the index finger more toward bevel 2. This is now more of a continental grip, the grip which most pro players use for their slice shots. Besides the grip, not a lot initially looks different from the preparation for a top spin backhand.
Federer still holds the throat of the racket with his left hand while rotating his upper body through a unit turn. While the racket height may be similar to his topspin backhand preparation, it is still high compared to many of the other players on the pro tour. This helps him generate the power and spin as he cuts down on the ball more aggressively.
It is the arc of the swing which helps make the Federer backhand slice such an effective weapon. Instead of swinging forward through the ball he swings across his body in a pendulum fashion. This allows Federer to generate huge amounts of underspin.
Federer’s footwork can also be different when he is playing a backhand slice. Unless he is having to reach some way for the ball his stance is quite open, with the left foot further along the court baseline than the right foot. The right foot still bears most of the weight, though this can alter for a slice on a high bounce, where his weight is placed through the left foot.
The grip, unit turn, footwork and side to side swing combine to produce a slice which can generate a remarkable spin of 5,300 rpm.
The grip Roger Federer uses on his backhand allows him to generate pace and spin on his shots. His iconic topspin backhand drive uses an Eastern backhand grip, which can be slightly modified when he opts for a slice backhand. The grip provides control and stability through the rotation of the body and as the arm swings through the shot.
The Eastern backhand grip is versatile and gives a player options on how to play a backhand shot. It also allows them to quickly switch grip for their next shot. Over his career Federer has worked on improving his backhand in to the acknowledged force it is today, with the grip providing the all-important solid foundation.