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Roger Federer dictates play with his backhand during victory over Rafael Nadal at the BNP Paribas Open.

Papa Federer: “Hit The Backhand, Damn It!"

The Swiss faces Nick Kyrgios in the BNP Paribas Open quarter-finals
There was only one person happier than Roger Federer with the way his backhand performed on Wednesday in his spectacular display of aggression to defeat Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-3 in the BNP Paribas Open fourth round. That was his father Robert, who witnessed from courtside the laser-like backhands cannonball past the Spaniard.

“First thing he told me after the match was 'Great match, great backhands,” said Federer, speaking to Tennis Channel. "He's basically been the first guy to tell me, ‘Hit the backhand, damn it! Don't fall back and slice all the time."

Victory at Indian Wells marked the first time Federer had beaten Nadal three times in a row in their gladiatorial 36 FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings. On numerous occasions in Nadal’s 23 triumphs against the Swiss player, the Federer backhand has been broken down by the relentless arching spin on the left-handed forehands from his mainstay rival.

However, Federer’s mesmerising victory over Nadal in the Australian Open final in January signalled that the tables had been turned. This was repeated once again at Indian Wells. Federer is no longer shackled on the backhand wing: he is ready to pounce early, to strike the ball at any height and with devastating effect.

On Wednesday Federer secured a crucial break in the second set with a backhand winner down the line, having made contact with the ball at shoulder height. On match point Federer swatted away the fifth seed’s serve to plant a backhand return winner onto the baseline. Nadal simply smirked in astonishment as he walked to congratulate his opponent.

“I think all my coaches throughout my career have told me to go more for the backhand, but I used to shank more,” added the 35 year old. “So maybe deep down I didn't always believe that I had it in the most important moments. But I think that's changing little by little, which I'm very happy about.”

Why the change in approach on the backhand side? One reason is Federer’s confidence playing with a bigger racquet head.

“I think with the bigger racquet, head size, I’m definitely having an easier time to come over the return, especially, and then to stay aggressive throughout the rally,” explained Federer. “Clearly because it has more power, I have to be careful how I manage that because the ball flies out of the racquet faster than with my previous racquet.”

The journey began in 2013, with Federer experimenting with new racquet designs, but back problems curtailed that evolution. 2014 was when Federer fully embraced the 97-square-inch frame, and that has evolved into his current racquet.

In the three preceding seasons Federer still reached three Grand Slam finals, clinched three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles, but his level wasn’t at the standard Federer expected.

A six month injury layoff at the end of 2016 appears to have been a blessing in disguise as a rejuvenated Federer has been able to rebuild his game, culminating in his 18th Grand Slam in Melbourne. Getting accustomed to his latest racquet is one area that Federer worked on tirelessly during the off-season.

“Obviously you have to take the ball on the rise, and for that you need good footwork, because if the footwork is not right, you won't be on top of the ball," said Federer. "But since this year, I feel super comfortable with the racquet, and I think I have also gained confidence stepping into the backhand.”

Even in the twilight years of his career, Federer continues to search for improvement. A thorough pre-season, coupled with the benefits of the larger racquet, have provided Federer with a platform to keep on delivering those blistering backhands for his father Robert.

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