How to beat Roger Federer

Only four players have beaten Roger Federer since 2005. Patrick McEnroe explains that each player has one thing in common: They all know how to attack Federer's backhand.

Updated: June 22, 2006, 7:07 PM ET
By Patrick McEnroe | Special to ESPN.com

When you look at the No. 1 players the past 25 years -- Pete Sampras, my brother [John], Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander and Bjorn Borg -- they all could play either defense or offense really well but were just OK at the other. Sampras was a great offensive player; Borg won with defense.

Rafael Nadal
Clive Brunskill/Getty IMagesRafael Nadal's forehand is the main reason he's the only player to beat Roger Federer in 2006.

But Roger Federer is the best I have ever seen at both. He will play defense if he is not feeling comfortable attacking early on, but when he does decide to step up his offensive game, there is no one on tour better. That's why he is the toughest player in the world to beat. He can beat you in almost any way.

However, if Federer is going to be beaten, there is one basic strategy: attack his backhand. The one commonality players who have given him trouble in the past couple of years all have is they hit extremely well off the left side of their body. Take a look at the strengths of the four players who have beaten Federer since 2005:

• Rafael Nadal has a big lefty forehand that generates a lot of topspin.

• Marat Safin has the huge two-handed backhand and can rip it cross-court. (Safin beat Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2005.)

• David Nalbandian -- whose best shot is his backhand -- beat Federer in five sets at the Masters Cup in Shanghai.

• Richard Gasquet's biggest weapon is off his backhand side.

What's amazing about Federer, though, is that after each of his eight losses in the past two years, he has turned it around the next time against each opponent, with the exception of Nadal. After his loss to Safin at the Australian Open, Federer beat him five months later in Germany. Nalbandian is 0-2 this year since beating Federer in December, and the Swiss is 3-0 since losing to Gasquet.

In the 2005 U.S. Open final, Andre Agassi pounded Federer's backhand with high-kicking serves out wide. Agassi won the second set and was up a break in the third, but Federer made a few quick adjustments and had little trouble thereafter.

The one player Federer has not been able to get by is Nadal because the young Spaniard's game matches up really well, especially on slower surfaces. After Federer won the first set at the French Open, his backhand broke down for the final three sets. He committed error after error from that wing (24 total errors from his backhand side), and it was clear Nadal could attack Federer's left side and get away with it. The Spaniard is unique in that he plays with so much topspin and can consistently get the ball up high to Federer's backhand. He can do this not only on clay but also on a slower hard court.

But the X factor here is that Wimbledon is played on grass, and that's a different beast. Grass completely neutralizes Nadal's spin. The Spaniard's high-bouncing topspin forehands won't be a factor on a faster, slicker surface. Federer likes to take the ball waist high, even below the waist. It's rare on grass that a ball comes up higher than that. He has such great hands and feet and can improvise shots when the ball is low, something most players can't do.

There's more to beating Federer than just attacking his backhand, no matter which surface he's playing on. Although his opponents need to attack his weaker side, they also need to do something with the next shot, and that's a lot easier said than done. Federer is very mobile and can turn defense into offense better than anyone. He is very comfortable hanging back and slicing his backhand deep into the court and waiting for an opening. That's why you see so many players on the court with Federer beat themselves. They know how quick he is and understand he can turn it on at any time, so they rush and make mistakes.

[Federer] will play defense if he is not feeling comfortable attacking early on, but when he does decide to step up his offensive game, there is no one on tour better. That's why he is the toughest player in the world to beat. He can beat you in almost any way.

What these players also need to do, especially on grass, is attack Federer's second serve and put pressure on him right away. If you don't, he'll be all over you and then it's over. Mario Ancic is a player who could give Federer a hard time. (Ancic is the last player to beat Federer on grass. However, that was four years ago in the first round at Wimbledon.) Ancic has a huge serve, hits his two-handed backhand well and attacks second serves.

You also need an attitude when playing Federer, like Nadal has. You saw how confident he was bouncing around like a boxer before the French Open final. Most players take the court -- especially on grass -- intimidated when playing the top-ranked player in the world.

Lleyton Hewitt has that attitude, and his best chance is on grass; however, I don't think his game matches up particularly well with Federer's. He doesn't have a big weapon, and he lacks the overall firepower.

Although beating Federer does not happen all that often -- just eight times in the past two years -- the players who have beaten him all have one thing in common. They can hit strong off their left side and attack Federer's backhand, his weaker flank.

Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, provides analysis for ESPN.com during Wimbledon.

Patrick McEnroe, who enjoyed success playing tennis on both the collegiate and professional levels for more than 10 years, serves as a tennis analyst for ESPN. He has also called play-by-play for select events.