Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are known for having one of the sport’s most epic rivalries; they’ve played incredible matches and given the crowd thrills every time they took the court. What makes their rivalry so special is their opposite styles of play. Federer’s style consists of more precision, elegance, and shorter point preference. Nadal’s style of play, on the other hand, is intense, built on raw power, and geared toward longer points and rallies. As a result, when these two greats met, their opposite poles created a unique matchup. Many fans discuss and compare their grueling matches, but only a few compare their strokes, particularly the forehand.
Who has a better forehand? Let’s see if we can reach a conclusion. Federer’s forehand is best known for its precision and elegance, whereas Nadal’s forehand is famous for its unrivaled topspin, pace, and power. Their dominance has spread to different surfaces as well; while Nadal is known as the King Of Clay, Federer is regarded as the undisputed King Of Grass. This has to do with their game and style of play.
Federer’s forehand was flatter, had a bigger windup, and had a lot of power in the early years of his career. After playing Nadal, it became clear that his power wasn’t helping him shorten and close points, as Nadal’s court coverage was unrivaled. Nadal’s forehand was more spin-oriented early on than the offensive shot it became around 2008, when he arguably had one of his best years on the tour. Federer’s backhand was constantly incapacitated by the Spaniard’s spin-loaded forehand, causing him to make an error or land a short ball, ending the rally. This was true in their first matches, which were played on clay. The dynamics of play completely changed when they met on grass. Because of his flat striking, Federer’s forehand began to penetrate more, while Nadal’s forehand failed to achieve its topspin loop due to the surface.
Change and Evolution
Grass is known for playing fast and low, leaving grinders like Rafael Nadal with very little margin for error. That’s why a dominant Federer bageled Nadal in the first set of the 2006 Wimbledon final, which was their first meeting on grass. The same playing style was carried over to the hard courts, which were also quite fast at the time. Until 2008, Federer’s forehand ability and tact were able to give him an advantage in hard court matches as well. Following 2008 two things happened: Federer changed his forehand to a shorter backswing and more topspin, and Nadal began to flatten the balls and be more aggressive on topspin strokes. This resulted in a fierce and tactically ready Nadal.
Soon after these changes we saw a performance from Nadal like never before at the French Open. Not only did he not drop a set in the whole tournament, but he literally crushed Federer in the final–losing only four games. Nadal got his revenge from the Wimbledon final, bageling Federer in the final set. Following Roland Garros, it became evident Nadal’s forehand started to take charge and at times was completely overpowering Federer. From that point on their rivalry started to take Nadal’s side for the epic matches such as the 2008 Wimbledon final, the 2009 Australian Open final, and the 2011 French Open final. Still Federer leads 11-9 in their hard court matches and 3-1 in their grass court matches, meaning that his forehand still is the dominant stroke on those surfaces.
To conclude and answer the question: Who has the better forehand? From the statistics and head-to-head records, Federer’s forehand would be the better of the two from 2005-2008, but from 2008 onwards the edge would go to Rafael Nadal due to his immense power and accuracy from that wing.
Main Photo from Getty.