Rafa vs. Thiem Preview
The 2019 French Open final will begin in just under 2 hours. Is there anything that we can look for when watching this match? The answer is a resounding YES! And it is based upon a simple idea: Rafa has relied upon the same exact tactical mix to beat both Tsitsipas and Djokovic in Rome and Fed in Paris. Here’s what it is:
Recall that DC Tennis’ Fed-Rafa preview predicted that Rafa would win the battle of the groundstrokes. The stats suggested that both his forehand and his backhand seemed to be stronger. The match bore this out. Rafa finished with a forehand DOMINANCE number (the % of points ended with a forehand – either a winner or an unforced error) of 20% - right in line with his 22 or 23% from his prior winning matches. Fed actually had a dominance number of 21% but was plagued by a NEGATIVE 6 differential between winners and errors.
Rafa’s winning backhand strategy is even more pronounced. IN ALL 3 OF HIS VICTORIES, HIS BACKHAND DOMINANCE NUMBER WAS 12%! However, while Tsitsipas also had a potentially winning 12% backhand number, all 3 of Rafa’s opponents had large NEGATIVE backhand differentials: Djokovic -12, Tsitsipas minus 14, and Fed -11. These numbers reveal that Rafa executes one of the most simple and basic tactics in singles: use your forehand to decimate your opponent’s backhand. This is NOT rocket science!
The big Q for today: can Thiem find a way not to let his backhand be exploited?
Two other dimensions from the Fed semi deserve some attention. We had suggested that there would be no difference is serving DOMINANCE. This turned out exactly as predicted: Fed and Rafa had equal effectiveness on their serves. It’s highly likely that Thiem’s serving with be neutralized by Rafa as well.
We had also noted that, in the 5-8 shot rally length, both Rafa and Fed had a significant edge over their opponents. So, who won this battle in the semi? It was exactly even with each player winning 22 points! So, where did Rafa’s edge come from when we look at rally length? He had a slight edge in the 0-4 shot category (55-48). This was nearly entirely attributable to a six shot advantage in unforced errors on return of serve (Rafa made 4 to Fed’s 10).
So, the big difference was in the longer 9+ rallies where Rafa won 74% of these rallies with a 24-9 margin. Rafa did this same thing to Djokovic in Rome winning 75% of the 9+ rallies.
There has been a lot of chatter lately about the dominance of the 0-4 shot category irrespective of surface. Rafa's play is strongly suggesting that endurance rallies still mater on clay and that they can be the difference maker. If Thiem can hang in the longer rallies, he will put Rafa to the test. The problem is, of course, that as the rallies extend, he will be hitting more and more backhands - read above. This is the bad news for him.
Enjoy the match and have a croissant – best with apricot jam!