The conversation starts and ends with backhand returns. The rest is just window dressing.
Dominic Thiem defeated Roger Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to win the the BNP Paribas Open final on Sunday, with backhand returns meaning more to the outcome than any other shot.
In the opening set, with Thiem serving at 0-1, the Austrian directed all 10 serves in the game to Federer’s backhand return, and the Swiss put all 10 back in the court, breaking Thiem on the fourth break point of the game.
Federer also clocked a backhand return winner to break Thiem at 3-4 in the opening set. The stroke was completely dialed in early on, but the longer the match progressed, the more it missed its mark.
Flashback to 2017 when Federer won his fifth title in the desert, and his backhand return was the focal point of his renaissance. After dominating Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-3 in the round of 16 in Indian Wells, Federer said post-match, “I am able to step into the court much easier than I ever have. By coming over my backhand return from the get-go in the point I can start dominating points from the start.”
Federer 2.0, which originated at the 2017 Australian Open and spilled over to Indian Wells two months later, was born from total commitment to come over the backhand return.
It was the bullseye of his resurgence, but that asset turned into a liability in the second and third sets on Sunday against Thiem as Federer increasingly had to slice the return to make it, providing Them with more time to immediately attack with a powerful Serve +1 groundstroke following his serve.
After making his first 10 backhand returns of the match, Federer missed five for the rest of the first set (18/23), seven in set two (13/20) and six in set three (17/23). Those 18 backhand return errors were the difference makers.
With Federer leading 6-3, 1-1 and having a break point at 30/40, he had an opportunity to put the match to bed. Almost all opponents historically go away against Federer when down a set and break.
Thiem’s first serve was always going to go out wide to Federer’s backhand return. In fact, at ATP Masters 1000 matches from 2014-2018 when serving at 30/40, Thiem has gone out wide in the Ad court almost two times out of every three (63%).
Thiem predictably went with his favourite strategy, kicking a heavy 101 mph first serve out wide to the backhand. Two years ago against Nadal, Federer stepped into the court and clocked it down the line for an outright winner as he surged to the finish line.
Sunday against Thiem, he shanked the break point backhand return straight into the court in front of him and bounced it over the net – table tennis style. Opportunity evaporates quickly in the desert heat.
Federer manufactured another break point two points later, but a backhand groundstroke error into the net at the end of an 11-shot rally brought the score back to Deuce. Two points later and Thiem held for a 2-1 advantage that provided the launching pad for his unlikely victory.
Thiem broke Federer in the following game, with the Swiss double faulting to start the game, then uncharacteristically served and volleyed on three consecutive second serves.
At 15/30, Thiem clocked a short-angled backhand return winner against the serve-and-volleying Swiss. On break point at 15/40, Federer attempted a forehand half-volley approach but buried it into the net, and out of nowhere he trailed 1-3.
The momentum was gone, and it would never return. Thiem suddenly was the one hitting backhand return winners when it mattered the most, and in the blink of an eye Federer went from being on his toes to on his heels.
Federer missed a backhand return in the 1-3 game and again at 2-4. With Thiem serving at 5-3, Federer missed a backhand long on the opening point, another one at 30/0, and lost the set with a backhand return error long with Thiem serving at 40/15.
A drip had turned into a torrent, and Thiem had successfully established a “go-to” hole on the other side of the court any time he needed a point.
With Thiem serving at 0-1, 30/30 in the third set, Federer had another opportunity to pounce. Instead, he netted a backhand return.
Thiem won his next service game at 1-2 with another Federer backhand return error. With Thiem serving at 2-3, two more backhand return errors increased the hemorrhaging for the Swiss.
Federer had one last window of opportunity with Thiem serving at 3-4, 0/30 in the third set. He lost the last point of the three-deuce game with a backhand return error.
At 5-5 in the third set, Federer seemingly panicked again. When he got broken in the second set, he doubled down on the secondary pattern of serving and volleying three times on second serves.
At 5-5, 30/15, in the third set, the Swiss went with the risky gambit of drop-shotting on two consecutive points, losing both. Federer missed his last backhand return of the match with Thiem serving at 6-5, 30/15, setting up match point.
Federer’s backhand return was the primary reason he won Indian Wells in 2017, but it turned into a gateway to defeat against Thiem on Sunday. Back to the drawing board.