How to beat Roger Federer
By Patrick McEnroe
Special to ESPN.com
When you look at the No. 1 players over the last 25 years -- Pete Sampras, my brother [John], Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander and Bjorn Borg, they could all either play defense or offense really well, and were just OK at the other. Sampras was a great offensive player, while Borg won with defense.
Clive Brunskill/Getty IMages
Rafael Nadal's forehand is the main reason he's the only player to beat Roger Federer in 2006.
But Roger Federer is the best I have ever seen at both. He will play defense if he is not feeling comfortable attacking early on, but when he does decide to step up his offensive game, there is really no one on tour better. That's why he is the toughest player to beat in the world. He can beat you in almost any way.
However, if Federer is going to be beaten, there is one basic strategy: attack his backhand. The one commonality players who have given him trouble in the last couple of years all have is they hit extremely well off the left side of their body. Take a look at the strengths of the four players who have beaten Federer since 2005:
• Rafael Nadal has a big lefty forehand which generates a lot of topspin.
• Marat Safin has the huge two-handed backhand and can rip it crosscourt. (Safin beat Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2005.)
• David Nalbandian -- whose best shot is his backhand -- beat Federer in five sets at the Masters Cup in Shanghai.
• Richard Gasquet's biggest weapon is off his backhand side.
What's amazing about Federer though is that after each of his eight losses in the last two years, he has turned it around the next time against each opponent, with the exception of Nadal. After his loss to Safin at the Australian Open, Federer beat him five months later in Germany. Nalbandian is 0-2 this year since beating Federer last December, and the Swiss is 3-0 since losing to Gasquet. Pat. Wow. Nadal is right-handed, but you have a sad need to declare Nadal a lefty "with a TOPSPIN forehand" to make Nadal look more lucky and blessed with advantages.
It's more than attitude and lefty-handedness. It's called speed and fitness.
No genius is required....Pat.
In the 2005 U.S. Open final, Andre Agassi pounded Federer's backhand with high-kicking serves out wide. Agassi won the second set and was up a break in the third, but Federer made a few quick adjustments and had little trouble thereafter.
The one player Federer has not been able to get by is Nadal because his game matches up really well, especially on slower surfaces. After winning the first set at the French Open, Federer's backhand broke down for the final three sets. He committed error after error from that wing (24 total errors from his backhand side) and it was clear that Nadal could attack Federer's left side and get away with it. The Spaniard is unique in that he plays with so much topspin and can consistently get the ball up high to Federer's backhand. He can do this not only on clay, but on a slower hard court as well.
But the X factor here is that Wimbledon is played on grass, and that's a different beast. Grass completely neutralizes Nadal's spin. The Spaniard's high-bouncing topspin forehands won't be a factor at all on a faster, slicker surface. Federer likes to take the ball waist high, even below the waist. It's rare on grass that a ball comes up higher than that. He has such great hands and feet and can improvise shots when the ball is low, something most players can't do.
There's more to beating Federer than just attacking his backhand, no matter which surface he's playing on. While his opponents need to attack his weaker side, they also need to do something with the next shot, and that's a lot easier said than done. Federer is very mobile and can turn defense into offense better than anyone. He is very comfortable hanging back and slicing his backhand deep into the court and waiting for an opening. That's why you see so many players who are on the court with Federer beat themselves. They know how quick he is and understand he can turn it on at any time, so they rush and make mistakes.
[Federer] will play defense if he is not feeling comfortable attacking early on, but when he does decide to step up his offensive game, there is really no one on tour better. That's why he is the toughest player to beat in the world. He can beat you in almost any way.
What these players also need to do, especially on grass, is attack Federer's second serve and put pressure on him right away. If you don't, he'll be all over you and then it's over. Mario Ancic is a player who could potentially give Federer a hard time. (Ancic is the last player to beat Federer on grass. However, that was four years ago in the first round at Wimbledon.) Ancic has a huge serve, hits his two-handed backhand well and attacks second serves.
You also need an attitude when playing Federer, like Nadal has. You saw how confident he was bouncing around like a boxer before the French Open final. Most players take the court -- especially on grass -- intimidated when playing the top-ranked player in the world.
Lleyton Hewitt has that attitude and his best chance is on grass; however, I don't think his game matches up particularly well with Federer's. He doesn't have a big weapon and he lacks the overall firepower.
While beating Federer does not happen all that often -- just eight times in the last two years -- the players that have beaten him all have one thing in common. They can hit strong off their left side and attack Federer's backhand, his weaker flank.
Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, provides analysis for ESPN.com during Wimbledon.