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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Federer Hits With More Spin Than Nadal

... except when Nadal hits with more spin than Federer. 
Whoa! Rafa fans, I know how sensitive you are.  I'm not dissing your man. Nadal has the heaviest topspin forehand on the planet. I bow before him. Although the claim that Rafa hits with more spin than anyone else is not entirely accurate, as I'll explain.
My beef instead is with the sloppiness and confusion caused by tennis TV announcers. Witness this discussion last November between the play-by-play announcer, which I believe was Brett Haber, and the color commentator, Taylor Dent, who recently retired from the ATP Tour after getting as high as 21 in the world, while watching Federer play Marin Cilic.

Haber: I just read that Nadal hits his forehand at 4,000 rpms and Federer at only 2,000. Nadal's forehand has twice the spin of Federer's. That's amazing. Dent: "They're {similar, but not identical} it's just that one chooses to clear the net by three feet and the other by two feet.
Haber: {long pause} Really?
Dent: Fed's forehand isn't the fastest I've played against, but it just explodes off the court. Take that approach. If I hit the same forehand Cilic would have put the ball at my feet but {Cilic shanked} Fed's approach. Many people don't realize the spin Fed hits with. I've never played anyone that hits his forehand so accurately."
NYT's video describes Nadal's topspin forehand.
 As best I can tell, everyone that quotes numbers for the spin top pros put on their shots uses one, original source: John Yandell's Yandell films slow motion video of the pros and actually counts the ball rotations (somebody has to). is a great web site, by the way. A subscription costs $19.95 a month of $99.95 a year, and is well worth it if you are into the technical side of tennis. John has tens of thousands of short videos of most every stroke by most of the top ATP players, most in slow motion and the newer ones in HD, plus technical analysis from dozens of contributors. It's a bit wonky for some, but if you want to know how things work, and you had only one, paid Web site to choose, is it. Here's a link to his subscription page and a "free tour".
The New York times has a good 2 min 41 second video "Speed and Spin: Nadal’s Lethal Forehand", based on Yandell's measurements as well as Hawk-Eye stats (vidcap above). Here are some numbers from that video, what has said outside its paywall, and a few other sources. (Photos of Rafa and Fed are from BNP Indian Wells, 2011, click to enlarge.)
Nadal's forehand averages 3,300 rpms, which is about 18% more than the average topspin on forehands from Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Roddick, while Andy Murray comes in another notch lower.
Rafa Nadal forehand topspin ©jfawcette
Sergi Bruguera, who won the French Open in 1993 and 1994 before injuries impaired his career, hit with the same average topspin as Nadal, 3,300 rpms, according to Yandell. I believe this is before co-poly strings were introduced. Bruguera lost the French Open final to Gustavo Kuerten in 1997, and Kuerten is generally cited as the first player to use Luxilon. Imagine if Bruguera in his prime hit with today's rackets and hybrid strings, on today's high-bouncing courts.
Nadal's highest, measured topspin is 4,900 rpm, this is close to what Pete Sampras hit on a second serve. But, remember, Nadal doesn't hit every shot the same way, no more than anyone else does. This topspin is used on slower, 70-75 mph loops, but Nadal frequently hits his biggest weapon, his inside-out forehand from his backhand corner at 94 mph, with less topspin, and I've seen him hit a short, flat put-away at 107 mph, according to announcers.
■ Federer's highest measured topspin is nearly that of Nadal at 4,500 rpm, even though he uses a much more neutral forehand grip, and a smaller, heavier racket. Fed's forehands generally blend more pace with less spin, but he varies it widely.
The highest spin Yandell has ever measured is 5,300 rpm on a Roger Federer sliced backhand. Yes, that's right, he hits his slice with more spin than Nadal puts on his forehand. Both players do, actually. You'll need to read Yandell's site for more stats.
How wicked is Fed's spin? Here's what Patrick McEnroe wrote in "Hardcourt Confidential: Tales from Twenty Years in the Pro Tennis Trenches by Peter Bodo and Patrick McEnroe" from hitting with Roger:
"When it comes to workouts, Roger is in that casual Sampras mode;the thing that struck me about the way he hit was his ease. He expended minimal energy; when I put a ball into play, he'd roll to it; the ball would disappear into his racket face, then it would come flying back.
Roger Federer forehand rally ©jfawcette (1)..................
"He doesn't hit a particularly heavy ball, like a Rafael Nadal. But the ball always seemed to come off the bounce faster than I expected, and the action on it reminded me of that first, good look I'd had at Roger, back in my first Davis Cup tie as captain. He works the ball; it's like the thing has different properties everytime he addresses it. One moment it is shaped like an egg from topspin; the next it's go so much backspin you can almost hear it purring.
"What I felt, mostly, was his control; the ball seemed to follow a different command with each shot, like a well-trained dog. ... I felt like my side of the court was twice the size of his; he found so many places to put the ball ... Roger is like a guy playing three-dimensional chess while everyone else is playing the regular way."
So, there's more to spin than the spin TV announcers apply.

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