Strategy: Make Your Opponent Stretch

Strategy: Make Your Opponent Stretch image

Nadal vs. Djokovic

Rome Final 2019

               It was a dream matchup when Rafael Nadal took on Novak Djokovic this past Sunday in the final of the BNL Italian Open. Both had recently played and defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas and it would be interesting to see if their performances against Tsitsipas offered any insight into what might happen in this match.

               Craig O’Shannessy at BrainGameTennis offers an interesting framework for analyzing matches. He divides rally lengths into 3 categories: 0-4, 5-8, and 9+ shots. He demonstrates conclusively that the winner of the 0-4 shots battle will often be the winner of the match. This is because the majority of points have this rally length. Both Djokovic and Nadal had an edge in the 0-4 rallies in their matches with Tsitsipas. Interestingly, this was also Tsitsipas’ best chance to win as well. But O’Shannessy also stresses that the Biggest Advantage often comes when looking at the 5-8 shots rallies. In both matches, Rafa and Novak won about 65% of these points with no big difference in the 9+ rallies.  O’Shannessy nicknames the 5-8 shot rally length Patterns of Play. This is the place where a well-prepared game plan will show its force. The Nadal/Djokovic comparison across the Tsitsipas matches demonstrated two things: 1) They are clearly stronger than the young Greek; and 2) they both beat him in just about the same exact way!

               Rafa’s lopsided victory in the final can easily be viewed through the rally length framework as well. Djokovic had a small lead in the 0-4 shots category by 54-46%. HOWEVER IN THE 5-8 PATTERNS OF PLAY CATEGORY AND IN THE 9+ ENDURANCE CATEGORY, HE WAS CONVINCINGLY BEATEN! In 5-8 rallies, Rafa won 65% of the points and in 9+ an astounding 75% of the points. There are 2 clues here.

               First, in both of their wins over Tsitsipas their respective forehands were the most highly occurring point-ending shot. More often with winners or forced errors but with some unforced errors as well, their respective forehands were the dominant force. In the final however, both players had less domination with their forehands – Rafa by a bit and Novak by a substantial margin – over 12% (see attached spreadsheet)! This can be explained by the unusually high number of unforced errors coming from the Djokovic backhand. Novak’s percentage of point-ending backhands just about doubled from 15.5% to 27%!

               On his website, O’Shannessy attributes Djokovic’s remarkable turnaround in his head-to-head with Nadal to his ability to stay closer to the baseline and take the backhand before it gets up too high. I agree. But in this final, Nadal seemed to be hitting his groundstrokes higher over the net. This did several things: 1) It forced Djokovic to adjust to an even higher bouncing, albeit slightly slower ball; 2) It made executing his backhand dropshot much more difficult as the balls were now coming in higher; and 3) it gave him more time to recover and play strong defense.

               It seems like Rafa’s solution to Djokovic is to beat him the way that he used to: up high to the backhand. Only now, maybe we can call it UP EVEN HIGHER TO THE BACKHAND! It will be interesting to see how Novak prepares for their next meeting.

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