Federer going East?
May 8, 2009 · Print This Article
Are grips everything?
Do not let the name of the article fool you. We will not be discussing Federers recent move to the Middle East, or Roger making a wrong turn on his way home from the airport in Switzerland. In recent times, the former number one has received a great deal of negative publicity, regarding his seven month title drought, and diminished effort level in matches. With that being said, perhaps the single most important issue that has been widely overlooked, which is hindering him the most, is his world renowned forehand wing. You’ve all heard it a million times over, “Federer’s forehand is the best shot the game has ever seen.” I agree, in it’s hay-day it provided a cyclone of disaster, to any city or country that it was in, leaving pain and agony on all of the lines that it painted, throughout all of the great tennis venues around the world.
But is it still the same forehand? Could it be that throughout the years his grip may have shifted around, causing Federer to question himself, while making an unforeseen amount of unforced errors? What needs to be examined here, is whether or not an eastern forehand grip (the grip which Federer uses), is prone to breaking down under pressure, and ultimately being referred to as the “chokers grip”. Our crack team of specialists at TennisConnected.com are inclined to suggest that R-Feds trademark forehand, and specifically his eastern forehand grip, are the main reasons for his continued decline in the men’s game.
Pro’s and con’s of the Eastern forehand grip
The picture to the right was taken back in 2007, when Federer was dominating the tour. It is clear that his index knuckle and heal pad are on the third bevel of the racket (for right handed players, seventh bevel for left handers), which is tern is defined as an eastern forehand grip.
Pro’s: An eastern forehand grip allows players to hit through the core of the ball with much more ease, as opposed to a western forehand grip. The ability to hit through the core of the ball with an eastern forehand grip, is achieved because the palm of the hitting hand is facing downwards as the racket is descending to its take back point, which allows for more extension through the ball because the tip of racket head tilts downwards at the point of contact. The palm down at the start of take back, is not to be mistaken with a “closed” racket position on the take back of the racket, as Federers actual racket position (and not his wrist), is quite open throughout his back swing. We will discuss the positioning of his racket angle during the take back of the stroke in further length as the article develops. The tilt of the racket head, at the point of contact is not as easily achieved with a western forehand grip. Reasons being, that instead of having the right index knuckle resting on the third bevel of the racket, the right handed player will have their index knuckle and heal pad resting on the forth bevel of the racket for semi-western (sixth bevel for left hander), and the fifth bevel for western forehands (both right and left handers).
The second picture to the right, also shows Federers eastern grip, this time through contact. Notice how the palm of his hand is facing slightly downwards as he extends through his strike zone. This will allow him to drive through the core of the ball, on a more consistent basis, because his wrist is not as laid back at contact, as it would be with a western grip. Therefore creating a flatter ball, which is a great point ending shot.
The eastern grip also allows players to maintain an easier transition from hitting an approach shot, to the grip change that is required for a volley (which is traditionally a continental grip). Another reason why attacking players such as John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, and Boris Becker did not use western forehand grips.
The final pro of using an eastern forehand grip is the ease in which first serves can be returned. Because the eastern forehand grip is not as laid back as the western forehand grip, returners have the luxury of blocking back, bigger serves, and not compromising there return grip, from that of their baseline forehand. In tern, an eastern forehand grip uses the pace of the server to greater reward when returning.
Western forehand grips will often struggle when returning slice serves for instance, because as the ball skids off the court, there is a tendency to catch the ball late, with the nature of a western forehand grip having the hitting hand rested back to a greater degree than the eastern forehand grip. The con’s of the eastern forehand grip will be discussed shortly.
There is certainly the potential that minor details in Federers forehand grip could have been adjusted over the years. However, with that being taken into account, the true x-factor leading to the inconsistency off of his forehand wing can be attributed to his recent battle with pressure.
I know many of you will be thinking, well there is no real revelation when suggesting that pressure effects an individuals performance, and it is obvious that currently Roger is not as confident. In tern he is not playing as well, which has resulted in him making numerous errors off of his forehand.
It should be noted, that as the younger generation continues their on slot towards Federers drive to catch and surpass, the Sampras record of 14 grand slams, the clear antagonist which has led his forehand to misfiring when he has needed it the most, is perhaps the disbelief that has crept into his mind. It is becoming more evident that he may not be able to achieve th mantle of the G.O.A.T. However, a more routed concern for the Swiss should be the way in which he holds his forehand grip, because it is perhaps the worst grip to have when pressure is in place.
Clearly, Federer is a phenomenal talent, his ability to smack forehand winners at will has mesmerized the tennis world for the greater part of the last decade. The cruise control nature in which he dominated the game (when he was on top), ultimately resulted in very little pressure against his eastern forehand. Simply put, the shot seemed invincible. Let us now take a look into why the eastern forehand is prone to breaking down, and specifically why Federers forehand, seems to be on the decline.
Cons: The main concerns with an eastern forehand grip are that a player is not entitled to drop their racket head under the level of the ball, with the same amount of ease that they would be able to achieve with a semi-western or even more so, western grip. As mentioned, it is easier to hit through the core of ball with an eastern grip, but hitting tremendous amounts of topspin is a challenge. With the amount of topspin which Federer likes to exert, he has found it increasingly difficult in recent times to create the safety (topspin), on his forehand which occurs in pressure situations. Thus the term the “chokers grip”, is prevalent to an eastern forehand grip, because it has a greater chance of breaking down in critical moments. The ability to brush the back of the ball, in order to create topspin is far more difficult with an eastern grip, and if not timed perfectly, anything but the court can be found.
The video below is a great analysis of Federers forehand grip. It clearly shows the positioning of his hand on the racket, from many different angles. It is important to note that this video is a great tool when understanding Rogers forehand grip in detail, specifically in recognizing what potential issues reside around using an eastern forehand grip.
Notice in the video, that when Federers racket is in the take back ready position, with his wrist laid back in the back swing (proceeding into contact), his racket head does not get under the ball with the same automatic ease, that Rafael Nadal is able to achieve. In the picture of Nadal to the right, notice that although he can not drive through the core of the ball, with the same ease which Roger can, Nadal’s ability to get under the level of the ball before contact, is achieved to a much easier degree, which is the primary reason why the Spaniard can generate more topspin. The end result is less unforced errors for Rafael, because his net clearance and safety (topspin), on the ball is far superior to that of Federer.
One in the net
Anyone remember the 2006 Roma Masters 1000 final between Federer and Nadal? Federers two match points were missed by– yes, two forehand unforced errors. Fast forward to the pairs 2008 Wimbledon finals showdown. What shot did Federer miss on Nadals final match point? You get the picture.
I know a lot of you out there will be eager to disagree that Federer was challenged during his reign a top the tour. But as we have shown, through analysis, because of the recent adversity that Federer has had to combat, his eastern forehand grip, is just not up to the task of dealing with constant pressure.
Rogers long time rival Rafael Nadal also has one of the greatest forehands the game has ever seen. In contrast, Rafa has proven time and time again that his forehand does not break down under pressure. Nadal has won numerous titles which have included marathon five set matches (something that Federer has not done), in his young career. It should also be noted that Nadals game does require more effort, bringing forth even more adversity to deal with. However even though the Spaniard has encountered countless challenges throughout his playing days, his western forehand grip, at the end of the day has always shined through any situation with the utmost consistency.
The differences in Nadal’s and Federer’s forehand grips are grand to say the least. These variables as mentioned are the main reasons why you will not see Nadals forehand breakdown as much as Federers. The video below once again highlights the differences between the two forehands, with the basis of the differential residing in the grip choice. The split screen footage clearly shows that as each player takes their racket back into the back swing, Nadals racket head is much more closed than Federers. The Spaniards ability to keep his racket head more closed on the take back of his forehand (which was eluded to earlier), is solely due to Nadals western grip, which is having his index knuckle and heal pad on the fifth bevel of his racket. With the continuation of each players racket towards their contact point, notice how Nadal’s racket strings are facing downwards (parallel to the ground), while Federer’s racket strings are off to his right (perpendicular to the ground). The racket angle throughout the forehand, is a vital point in each players stroke, as Nadal is now in a better position then Federer to brush the back of the ball at contact. In tern Nadal’s ability to keep his racket in a more laid back position (throughout contact), helps him to create more topspin (margin and safety), on the shot, and ultimately allowing his forehand to not break down to the same extent that Federers forehand has shown.
Racket head speed
A key element in a player developing high level strokes (in this case a forehand), is how much racket head speed can they generate? The pro’s can create excellent racket head speed, which is one of the primary reasons why they can hit their shots with great power.
There is no question that Federer has tremendous racket head speed. But as the pressure has mounted, this exact same racket head speed, combined with his eastern grip have caused his forehand to break down when he has needed it the most. Prime examples of Federers recent forehand debacles, are evident with the last three matches he has lost on tour. Against Novak Djokovic (l. Miami), Stanislas Wawrinka (l. Monte Carlo), and Novak Djokovic (l. Roma), Federers forehand was anything but reliable. All three of these losses displayed Roger spraying his forehand all over the court, because the combination of his eastern grip coupled with this racket head speed, were not able to deal with the adversity his opponents were putting on him. Federer is now in a dangerous position where he has needed to rely more on wrist use and timing to make up for the fact that he can not naturally create the amount of safely (topspin), which he needs to have when his forehand is under pressure.
Recent tennis history has brought forth yet another phenomenon, that being the amount of topspin that Rafael Nadal can create on his forehand. Nadal is able to create his viscous topspin through violent racket head speed, but more precisely through his western grip. Nadal is able to get under the ball to a greater degree than Federer can, which ultimately results in Rafael not having to use his wrist, in a desperate measure to create topspin. Nadal rarely hits his forehand into the net, due to the margin (height), which he has on his forehand. When was the last time anyone can remember Rafa hitting a forehand into the net?
In a recent study it was measured that Nadal could generate 3200 r.p.m. with a maximum of 5000 r.p.m. on his forehand. Federer on the other hand achieved 2500 r.p.m. with a maximum of 3200 r.p.m. With that being said, it is no wonder why Nadal achieves such great net clearance, and perhaps why he has won four French Open titles.
With Federer being more under the gun these days, the combination of his eastern grip, racket head speed and use of his wrist (on some occasions), will continue to cause him difficulties. A) because his grip does not allow him to consistently get under the level of ball, to the degree that a semi-western or western grip would and b) with Federer using a little bit of wrist on his forehand, in an attempt to generate more topspin on the ball (combined with his tremendous racket head speed), the result will be more errant forehands and inevitably continued frustration for the 13-time grand slam champ.
Before we get back to the challenges Federer faces with his forehand, I want to share a similar story from former top five American player Jimmy Aries. Aries, who reached the heights of the men’s game at age 19, was known for having one of the biggest forehands of his day. His rise to the number five spot which he achieved on April 9, 1984, was short lived. As his success grew, his western forehand, for whatever reason ceased to exist. Aries was befuddled at the time, in attempting to come up with a solution to his diminished bread and butter forehand. As his grip went more towards an eastern look, his ranking subsequently continued to plunge, into the teens, the twenties, the thirties, point taken!
Ironically in a recent interview with Tennis Week, Arais was asked about Federers recent woes, and it seemed as though his analysis came from the heart.
Tennis Week: When you look at Federer’s current state, obviously to take Nadal into a fifth set in Australia, he had a chance to win that title. The fact he has not won a tournament title this year do you attribute that to his level slipping a bit or is it that the younger guys like Nadal, Murray and Djokovic have just gotten better? Do you think it’s a case of Roger regressing or the other three top guys just improving?
Jimmy Arias: I think it’s a combination of both. The blunt truth is his forehand, which was the best shot in tennis for a number of years, is a little less reliable now.
Takes one to know one.
I get asked the, “will Federer rebound” question a lot? Shaking my head with a glimmer of hope, I answer the question with a smile, but deep down inside I am thinking something else. Even though the debate is ongoing (it was much more certain 18 months ago), that Federer is the greatest player to have ever lived, changes do not come easy. Especially changes of a technical nature. We have all witnessed Novak Djokovic trying to step in on his volleys, and Andy Murray pretending like Alex Corretja will all of a sudden teach him how to slide on claycourts. But Federers issues, and the changes that he must make, are of a different calling. Roger has been hitting the same forehand for many years, and to ask him to change to a more sensible, spin oriented, semi-western or western grip (at this point), after all that he has achieved, is next to impossible. Simply put, his greatest weapon has become his greatest weakness.
As the dark cloud of a forehand gone wrong, casts its ugly shadow over the head of the remainder of Federers career, here is hoping that the 13-time grand slam champ will be able to defy the odds, and inch over towards a more user friendly version, of his world renowned forehand.
Special thanks go out to Fuzzyyellowballs.com and Peter Burgess, for their insight into this article.
Please stay tuned, as we will next take at look at Rogers racket, and the head size of his current frame, being perhaps another reason his game is in turmoil.