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No Matter How You Slice It, a Stealthy Backhand Still Works

Roger Federer and Ashleigh Barty strode toward the weekend at the United States Open dogged by a question.

Were they still suffering from the Wimbledon blues?

Federer, the men’s No. 3 seed and an eternal fan favorite, arrived at his third-round match on Friday after a pair of error-laden performances in which he’d looked uncharacteristically weary.

At age 38, after reaching the Wimbledon final in July only to lose an epic marathon to Novak Djokovic, did Federer have a hangover?

And what about Barty, the second-seeded woman? In June, the stylish Australian took the French Open title and vaulted briefly to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time. Then came a stunning upset at Wimbledon in the fourth round. She hadn’t shown sustained confidence since.

Just like Federer, Barty was still searching for stability after two matches in New York. And just like Federer, she may have found it by relying on a singular shot, perhaps the most overlooked, underrated and stealthy shot in all of tennis: the backhand slice.

Hoping to regain a measure of consistency, Federer unfurled his backhand slice early against Dan Evans on Friday. Instead of playing loose, instead of rolling out his powerful topspin in the first set, he let backspin add a needed measure of conservative play to his game.

He deployed it often on returns, during rallies and while coming to the net — throwing in a constellation of slow spinners that baited Evans into match-altering errors. The end result was vintage Federer: a 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 win. Clean, efficient, confident, and the kind of game the Swiss will need to get by a tougher opponent, 15th-seeded David Goffin, in Sunday’s fourth-round match.

The undercut backhand provided a similar safe space for Barty, who is known as having the best slice among the women. On Friday she did not hit her signature shot with quite the clarity she has when in peak form, but it was the foundation that helped her move past Maria Sakkari, 7-5, 6-3, in what was clearly her best performance of the tournament.

When both matches were done, fans could be heard rhapsodizing about the awe-inspiring sweetness of the Federer and Barty serve and forehand, the glory shots that draw all the attention. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Asked after his match to name the strokes that give him the most pleasure, Federer didn’t hesitate before citing those two remarkably forceful shots. So often when he needs to rely on them, he said, “the rally is over.”

But, he added, the slice backhand has always been “my base.”

Outside of tennis aficionados, less attention is paid to Federer’s slice backhand, which in classic fashion starts at just above shoulder height and sweeps downward, quickly and easily.

It is a buffer against power and a change of pace. And it has now driven two generations of players — from Sampras and Agassi to Nadal and Djokovic and even the 29-year-old journeyman Evans — to utter distraction.

“It just nullifies everything,” said Evans, who added that the backspin creates a particularly painful sense of anxiety for opponents. “It feels like you should be able to just tag it,” he said, describing how alluringly slow the ball can look.

But tagging such a ball, knocking it off for a winner, is actually “very, very tough,” he said. The timing must be perfect. The footwork has to be in high gear.

ImageCreditMatthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Federer slice backhand, Evans explained, tends to tumble through the air slower than his other shots. It bounces lower and spins in the opposite direction than the heavy topspin groundstrokes that are the coin of the realm in pro tennis.

It’s “like the slow ball pitched in baseball,” he said. “You get a pitcher throwing 10 rockets in a row and then that pitcher throws in the ball that goes really, really slow — it just messes up your timing.”

More, it is rarely played at a proficient level or practiced against, leading to an air of surprise.

Evans could name only one other player besides Federer on the men’s tour — Feliciano López — who used the shot regularly. And after her match on Friday, Barty credited much of her effectiveness with the shot to the fact she is one of its rare heavy users on the women’s tour.

The Evolution of Tennis in Four Grips

Over the years, players have moved their grips farther and farther under the handle. It creates a lot of topspin, and some strange looking swings.

Barty, a 23-year-old Australian who plays 18th-seed Wang Qiang in the fourth round on Sunday, hits the backhand slice even more often than Federer. It’s the engine that propels her game. “A shot I love to hit,” she says — a stroke “I can trust and put the ball wherever I want.”

She is arguably the sport’s most ardent proponent of a stroke that bedevils opponents. Her slice is similar to Federer’s in form — the ease, the dancer’s footwork as she glides to the ball, the setup at or above shoulder height and the smooth, scooping arc downward with one hand.

But there are also qualitative differences. Adding to the unusual nature of her slice is the fact that she thumps her backhand drive and topspin with two hands. And Barty tends to do even more with the slice than anyone in tennis: She hits slow rollers, crisp angles, curving fades, outright winners and, in defiance of tennis convention, passing shots.

The slice may be rare now, but it has a deep history in tennis. As the game evolved throughout the 20th century, it was a regular part of most every top player’s arsenal. Australian stars like Ken Rosewall and Evonne Goolagong, Barty’s forebears, are prime examples.

But tennis changed profoundly with the advent of stiff, graphite rackets and strings made with materials like Kevlar, which added a previously unthinkable level of catapulting power and spin.

The result is the modern game: more physical than ever, full of home run sluggers and lacking bona fide variety. That means anyone deploying a changeup skillfully has an advantage. Taylor Townsend, for example, rode a remarkable string of undercut balls and repeated forays to the net when she took out the reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep on Thursday.

Townsend’s play was a rarity, however. Few players use backspin like Barty and Federer.

John Yandell, the California-based publisher of Tennisplayer, a digital magazine, and a teaching professional, has been studying high-speed film of top players since the 1980s. He said the slice backhand was little understood.

It may be moving slowly, but his studies show that, for all the shot’s smoothness and ease, the rotation imparted by the modern slice is radical. In fact, when struck by its most accomplished practitioners, it is actually the shot on the pro tour with the fastest average spin.

“Federer’s slice averages just over 5,000 revolutions per minute,” Yandell said.

That’s not only far and away more action on the ball than players like Rosewall imparted, it’s roughly twice the revolutions Federer creates with his topspin backhand.

Another comparison: Rafael Nadal’s forehand, usually thought to be the fastest-rotating groundstroke in tennis, typically clocks in at about 3,500 r.p.m., according to Yandell’s studies.

The high spin rate is ideal for the modern game, Yandell said, because when hit well, a slice backhand can provide a crucial level of control and surprise in a game besotted with power.

“All of a sudden, with one shot you have this radically different speed and lower bounce in the mix, and the velocity is way less,” Yandell said. “It’s the difference between rock music and jazz. Are you only going to hit shots with the same back beat or are you going to change it up, add something new with different speeds, spins and bounces? What kind of music are you going to play?”

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