Federer defeated Kei Nishikori 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 at the Barclays World Tour Finals on Thursday afternoon, only winning three more points (96 to 93) over the two-hour and 10-minute battle.
Making Roger Federer hit as many backhands as possible in a row is what the backhand cage strategy focuses on. Federer may make his first couple of backhands, but can he make four or five in a row?
At the start of the match, Federer looked like he had all the time in the world to hit backhands, but Nishikori gradually improved his court position and groundstroke velocity to really target the Federer backhand side.
Nishikori was the first opponent to win a set from Federer this year in London, and also the first opponent to make him hit more backhands than forehands from the back of the court.
Federer hit 54 per cent backhands and 46 per cent forehands from the baseline against Nishikori, committing 13 backhand unforced errors, while hitting eight backhand winners.
Federer hit 55 per cent forehands in defeating Tomas Berdych, and went 50/50 beating Novak Djokovic - both of those in straight sets.
Federer is now totaling 49 per cent forehands and 51 per cent backhands combined over his first three matches at The O2.
Federer’s forehand is a much more potent weapon from the back of the court, and also helps set up countless attacks to the net.
Federer’s average backhand speed against Nishikori was 63 miles per hour (Nishikori 69 mph), with his topspin backhand averaging 71 mph (Nishikori 74 mph).
Nishikori definitely held the edge in backhand-to-backhand exchanges, constantly trying to make Federer hit one more shot in search of one more error, and also playing behind him with great success. Nishikori won 63 baseline points to Federer’s 49, with the backhand cage being the primary pattern.
Overall, Federer hit 72 per cent of his backhands with topspin against his Japanese opponent, mixing in 28 per cent slice to try and keep the ball low, and not give Nishikori any power to work with.
Nishikori hit 80 per cent topspin off his backhand, and 20 per cent slice, looking to hit the ball harder and deeper, leaning on the Federer backhand to commit errors.
Nishikori hit 79 per cent of his backhands cross court in a clear attempt to keep Federer in the dreaded “backhand cage”.
Nishikori also hit his backhand deeper, hitting 85 per cent past the service like, compared to only 76 per cent from Federer.
Federer did not serve well, only making 54 per cent (51/94) of his first serves, but won a very high 84 per cent (43/51) when he did get it in.
Of note was how well Federer performed serving in the Ad court, only losing two points for the entire match. He won 12/13 serving out wide, and 9/10 down the T.
An interesting dynamic was how Federer was constantly kicking the ball up high to his 5'11" opponent’s backhand in the Ad court, with the Japanese star moving forward to stop it climbing out of his strike zone.
Nishikori averaged making contact 1.43 metres (4.7 feet) with his backhand return wide in the Ad court, but only 1.27 metres (4.2 feet) hitting forehand returns out wide in the deuce court.
That 16 centimetre (6.3 inches) difference is all about using spin and height to force a weaker return from Nishikori’s backhand wing.
Federer led 4-1 in the second and lost it 6-4, and also led 4-1 in the third set before Nishikori raced back to level at 4-4. A critical moment for Federer was escaping a 0/40 hole at 1-1 in the third set, winning five straight points to get out of the jam. In the 2015 season, Federer is amazingly holding 37 per cent of the time when trailing 0/40.
Nishikori also contributed an untimely double fault serving at 4-5, 40/30, in the final set, and the match was quickly over two points later.
Nishikori got close with the right strategy, but his good play was too often tied to the scoreboard.
When he was trailing Federer, he played very aggressively with his court position and velocity of shot, but that needed to turn up more when he was ahead in the score.
It was the perfect hit-out for Federer, being pushed to the limit, and relying more on his backhand than his traditional strengths to get over the finish line.