Tennis Tactics, Technique and Analysis

Federer vs Wawrinka in Rome 2015: All About The Second Serve Return

In the wake of Wawrinka’s scintillating performance against Nadal in Rome, it would have been easy to see him dispatching Federer with at least equal, if not greater, ease. While Nadal’s year has clearly been sub-par on the red dirt, Wawrinka earned his with over the King of Clay with aplomb. Federer’s comfortable win was neither luck nor the result of poor play from Wawrinka. Rather it came¬†largely down to one key factor – the second serve return.

Even more so than on the other surfaces, clay court tennis at the professional level is a battle of positioning. It is about controlling space – pushing your opponent back and gaining ground to put yourself in a position to attack. In this regard there was a marked difference in the approach by the two players. One of the very things that served Wawrinka so well against Nadal proved a large part of his downfall against Federer.

Wawrinka Vs Nadal

Wawrinka returning Nadal's second serve

Wawrinka returning Nadal’s second serve

In this image we see a typical return position for Wawrinka against Nadal. Wawrinka is standing extremely deep behind the baseline to return Nadal’s second serve. However in this instance it was an intelligent play. Nadal gives up ground on the baseline relatively easily on all surfaces, happy to trust in his heavy ball and work ethic to grind opponents down. By standing back, Wawrinka was able to run around many of Nadal’s second serves and hit a deep, heavy forehand. In doing so he pushed Nadal back and gained court position. Nadal won a paltry 36% of his second serves, largely as a result of this strategy.

Wawrinka Returning Federer

Wawrinka returning Federer's second serve

Wawrinka returning Federer’s second serve

You can see here that Wawrinka’s in a similarly deep position to return Federer’s second serve. In face the depth is almost identical. So why does this work against Nadal on clay, but not Federer?

For starters the fact that Wawrinka is hitting a backhand instead of a forehand. Nadal is extremely predictable in his serving locations, tending to serve almost exclusively to his opponent’s backhand. In comparison Federer has the ability to hit his second serve wide more aggressively than Nadal can, a guaranteed ace on clay if the returner moves to run around the backhand. This means Wawrinka is trapped into hitting predominantly backhand returns off the Federer second serve. Wawrinka has a fantastic backhand (likely the best in the game at present), but when it comes to return of serve Wawrinka’s forehand is a more effective return on clay. Wawrinka’s forehand is a heavier ball than his backhand and pushes his opponent back more. Where Stan’s forehand consistently gained him court position on the second serve return against Nadal, his backhand wasn’t able to do the same to Federer (who naturally resists giving up ground far more than Nadal does).


Federer Returning Wawrinka

Federer returning Wawrink'a second serve

Federer returning Wawrink’a second serve

We can immediately see that Federer is comfortably inside the baseline to return Wawrinka’s second serve. His positioning takes time away from Wawrinka, not allowing him to get his feet set well after the serve. On the deuce court Federer used a variety of strategies on the second serve return. In the image above, he is hitting the slice return, which he would often chip and charge behind. At other times he would hit over the ball from a similar position, and at others still retreat back to an almost Wawrinka-like position to hit the topspin backhand. The constantly varying position kept Wawrinka off balance as he never knew how much time he would have after the serve before hitting his first ball, and whether or not that first ball would be a passing shot.

On the ad court the diffence was perhaps even more marked. On that side Federer almost never moved back, and was constantly pressing up to catch the return early.

Federer and Wawrinka's second serve positions

Federer and Wawrinka’s second serve positions

This image shows the difference in approach between the two players in the most clear manner possible. Federer is significantly inside the baseline to strike a crosscourt return. Wawrinka has retreated to well behind the baseline, and in doing so given up court position and granted Federer time. It is perhaps fitting then that Federer’s backhand in this image was a crosscourt winner to seal his break at 4-4 in the first set.


Nobody in their right mind would argue that Federer’s topspin backhand is better than Wawrinka’s. Wawrinka consistently has both more power and more consistency off that win. And yet in the way that mattered most in this match Federer’s backhand was the superior shot purely because of his feet. Federer’s willingness to step up and take the second serve return early on the clay was the largest deciding factor in the match. Federer won 62% of his second service points across both sets with Wawrinka stepping back and taking the return from deep in the court. Under the pressure of Federer’s attacking returns, Wawrinka managed to win only 33% of his own second serves – a number that makes it exceedingly difficult to win any match.

  1. Hi Glen

    Do you think Federer would have had more success on clay against Nadal staying deeper on the service return as Wawrinka did here in Rome?


    • Hi Martin,

      The opposite is actually true. I believe Federer would have had far more success if he had been willing to attack the Nadal serve more aggressively. I think that because Nadal’s serve was so predictable, Fed always felt like he could make a return and start the point. But when he plays Nadal, especially on clay, starting the point in neutral simply isn’t good enough. If he’d attacked more he would have had more breaks, which is the big thing that’s stopped him from beating Nadal more often.

      • Hello Glen
        Yes, would have been good to see Fed run around a lot more ad court second serve backhands against Nadal (or just step in early), especially on the many break points Fed has earned against him. Lastly, just some clarification needed: Would not standing further back to assist in upgrading second serve backhands to forehands (especially on clay), helped to give a deeper harder return, as Wawrinka did in Rome, from the deuce court? Indeed, if Fed were to have given up a little more ground from the baseline during rallies, so Nadals ball dropped more on the backhand (as Dimitrov has tried with some effectiveness), might Fed have had more success?

        • It would, but we have to keep in mind that Federer and Wawrinka have different games. Wawrinka is quite happy smacking backhands from anywhere in the court. For Federer, the instant he gets caught behind the baseline hitting backhands against Nadal he is in rapidly escalating trouble. For Fed he has to step up so he can rush Nadal, take time away and increase his chances of getting a forehand on the *next* ball after the return. That’s not to say he should never step back, as it is a good play to add variety, but as a whole I’m not sure it works out so well for him against Nadal.

  2. Thanks Glen
    Looks like Nadal may be done winning slams now like Fed hey!