Rafael Nadal dug around and exploited two glitches in the Milos Raonic serving machine—two successfully converted break points, that is—to win his Australian Open quarterfinal 6-4, 7-6 (7), 6-4. And now he’s surveying a field full of the prettiest one-handed backhands in all the land. Roger Federer’s got the regal prototype; Grigor Dimitrov, a decade younger, wields a budget imitation that’s lately looked convincing; and Stan Wawrinka rips a punchier variant that takes my vote for most gasp-inducing groundstroke in the current game. Those are three potent shots, weapons most opponents would fear. But Rafa, easing into his first Grand Slam semifinal since the 2014 French Open, must be eager to feast on them.
As the conventional wisdom goes, Nadal excels against even the sharpest one-handed backhand players because because they struggle with his furiously spun groundstrokes, which set the ball rotating at more revolutions per minute than any other shot on tour (though these days, Jack Sock’s forehand must come close). Nadal’s ball, particularly his forehand, not only flies in fast but after bouncing, vaults right up off the court and over your head, due to the startling topspin. That’s a confounding ball for any backhand to cope with, but we can posit some mechanical reasons that a one-hander might handle it even worse.
First, a one-handed backhand has a less forgiving, much narrower strike zone—ideally the ball is struck early and out in front, just below waist height—so a high-bouncing ball demands more footwork prep to line up the shot correctly, while still running the risk of dragging yourself way behind the baseline. Second, no matter how strong the wrist on your dominant hand, it surely helps to have a second hand to stabilize the racket as you deflect that much pace from an uncomfortable height—sometimes, in the worst cases, at or above shoulder level.
These aren’t esoteric, closely guarded tennis tactics—it’s kryptonite Nadal himself openly waved around in his 2011 autobiography:
But will this work on his first victim, semifinal opponent Grigor Dimitrov? “Baby Federer” stands two inches taller than his namesake, and looks as though he takes the ball slightly higher on his backhand. (That tiny shift in height and stroke might sound negligible, but it’s a game of extreme, infuriating precision, after all.) In his quarterfinal against the smooth-striking David Goffin, Dimitrov had a penchant for running around his backhands and walloping inside-out forehands that would fly past Goffin, even when he was standing mere feet away. He also employs of a floaty defensive slice that he can hack from fairly high up in the air to reset a point. If Dimitrov can tolerate the high ball to his backhand or hide the backhand altogether with his foot speed, there may be life in him yet; still, Nadal comfortably claims their head-to-head history, 7-1, though he lost their most recent meeting last October in Beijing.
If Nadal presses through to the final, then he’ll face the winner among the Swiss. Wawrinka brings more raw pace and loves taking it down the line, or, right back to Rafa’s backhand, rather than to the whipped-up forehand the Spaniard relies on to bully enemy backhands. Wawrinka is also a husky dude, thick-haunched and -chested, capable of digging in and muscling back the high-kicking balls when he must. Compared to the other potential opponents, he moves slower, but his strength makes him a little tougher to bully off the court with a heavy topspin ball. Historically Nadal has owned this matchup against the mercurial Swiss, 15-3, but the last time they squared up on these courts at the 2014 final, Stan bested (an admittedly injury-ridden) Nadal.
And if Nadal draws Federer, we’re treated to yet another bout of the best rivalry in the sport. It skews 23-11 in Rafa’s favor, but Roger’s offense this tournament has looked as pure as ever, his tactical versatility granting him wins over serve-and-volleyer Mischa Zverev and baseliner Kei Nishikori. No ambiguity about Nadal’s strategy here—as he wrote, or had ghost-written, for all the world to see, it’s “not a complicated plan”—so it’s only a matter of whether Federer’s can fend off the assault he knows is coming.