Barclays ATP World Tour Finals The O2, London | NOV 13-20
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Brain Game: Federer's Bittersweet Forehand
Djokovic, Federer

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Roger Federer’s bittersweet forehand delivered both pleasure and pain in his three-set loss to Novak Djokovic at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals on Tuesday night.

Djokovic defeated Federer 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-2 and no shot on the court had more bearing on the final outcome of the match than Federer’s once-feared forehand.

This used to be the difference-maker for the Swiss legend – the shot more than any other that has firmly cemented his name in the upper echelon of the record books.

But while it still shows flashes of brilliance, it is increasingly to blame for the losses that are mounting up at a rate we are not used to seeing.

Federer hit seven forehand winners for the match with two coming from cross court passing shots and one from a cleverly disguised drop shot. That only leaves four true baseline forehand winners in three sets from the former world number one. We are used to seeing that in three games – especially at the year-end finals where he has won a record six titles.

All four of Federer’s forehand winners were directed towards Djokovic’s backhand wing, with two straight down the line and the other two coming from run-around forehands in the Ad court hit behind Djokovic.

When Federer last beat Djokovic, in the final of the ATP World Tour Masters in Cincinnati last year, Federer hit 10 forehand winners and made only 15 errors in two sets and had much more control of the back of the court with his favorite shot.

Last night in London Federer’s forehand coughed up 33 errors with 11 in the opening set, 15 in the second set and seven in the deciding set. Federer’s forehand was the primary target for Djokovic to attack as Federer’s backhand only produced three winners and 21 errors.

Of the 20 forehand errors Federer made in the deuce court last night, 75% (15) were committed standing wider near the singles line and 25% (5) closer to the middle of the court. These are similar numbers to their match in the final at the O2 last year where Federer made 29 forehand errors in the deuce court with 80% (21) coming out wide and 18% (9) closer to the middle of the court. Stretching Federer wide to his forehand was a winning tactic for Djokovic in London last year and also this year.

Federer also had one other major hole in his game last night against Djokovic – first serve location in the deuce court. Federer typically serves wide in the deuce court more than down the T but that flipped last night for Federer which hurt him much more than it helped him. Federer attempted 19 first serves out wide, five at the body and 28 to the lower percentage but higher reward target right down the middle.

Serving down the T in the deuce court offers a smaller target to hit to and is also directed at Djokovic’s better backhand return side. The pressure of these factors had Federer only making eight (28%) of the 28 first serves he attempted there. When he made it he won all eight, but missing 20 first serves and giving Djokovic a look at 20 second serves in the deuce court is a heavy price to pay.

Federer did a much better job serving down the T in the Ad court, making 80% (16/20) and winning 75% (12/16) of the time. Serving out wide in the Ad was his tougher location where he only made 50% (14/28) of his first serves and won 50% (7/14) of those points.

Federer did show a strong commitment to come to the net to finish points where he won 64% (16/25) of his points while Djokovic had similar numbers winning 60% (12/20) of the time. When the points got longer, particularly in the third set, it was Djokovic who typically prevailed in those exchanges.

Federer must immediately find a way to become a lot tighter with his two major weapons, his serve and forehand, in his remaining matches against Juan Martin Del Potro and Richard Gasquet if he has any hope of reaching the semi-finals on Sunday.

Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Read more at


  • Roger Federer
  • Novak Djokovic
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