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Brain Game: Nadal's Improved Serve

Rafael Nadal

Nadal© AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal's service placement improvement was a key factor in his Monte-Carlo final win.

Craig O'Shannessy embarks on a deep analysis of Rafael Nadal's service and forehand improvements this year...

Rafael Nadal has finally updated his game plan against Novak Djokovic.

Nadal defeated Djokovic 6-3, 6-1 in the final of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters Sunday, unveiling new patterns of play that helped snap a seven-match losing streak against the World No. 1. The first noticeable area was his serve location.

Nadal typically looks to hit his lefty slice serve to a right-hander’s backhand to start the point, but this has proven to be a tough proposition against Djokovic, who has one of the best backhand returns in the history of the game.

Nadal served much more to Djokovic’s forehand in this match and reaped the rewards of serving not where he prefers to serve but where Djokovic is not as deadly returning.

This was obvious from the start of the match in Nadal’s opening service game, where he served five of the first six points to Djokovic’s forehand return. Nadal was down 15-30 in that game, but three consecutive serves to Djokovic’s forehand wing were all unreturned to even the score at 1-1.

Nadal typically likes to hit first serves down the T in the deuce court and out wide in the ad court but he completely stayed away from his favorite spots in this match.

Nadal's 1st Serve Location Deuce Court

1st Serves Made 1st Serves Won
Deuce Court Wide To Forehand 9/12 8/9 (88%)
Deuce Court T To Backhand 0 0%

Nadal's 1st Serve Location Ad Court

1st Serves Made 1st Serves Won
Ad Court T To Forehand 8/13 6/8 (75%)
Ad Court Wide To Backhand 0 0%

This could possibly be the only match in Nadal’s career he has never attempted a first serve to his favorite locations and signals a definite change of tactics, especially from the last match they played in the final of the 2012 Australian Open, which Djokovic won in five sets.

2012 Australian Open - Nadal's 1st Serve Location Deuce Court

Serves Won
Deuce Court T To Backhand 10/14 (71%)
Deuce Court Wide To Forehand 27/35 (77%)

2012 Australian Open - Nadal's 1st Serve Location Ad Court

Serves Won
Ad Court T To Forehand 16/22 (72%)
Ad Court Wide To Backhand 13/25 (52%)

The next part of Nadal’s game that bears clear evidence of his updated strategy is the first shot after the serve, which he loves to hit as a forehand. This “serve + one” combination turns these two weapons into one unit to keep control of the point.

Nadal hit 18 forehands (81%) and only four backhands as the first shot after the serve, winning 13 (72%) of them. He won two of the four (50%) points he started with a serve and backhand.

Nadal talked about this tactic in his post-match interview. “My serve worked very, very good,” he said. “Sure, I had a few free points with the serve. But most important thing, after the serve, I had the chance to go inside with my forehand a lot of times, so this makes a big difference, no?”

Once the point got started, Nadal made further adjustments with his game to bring his forehand more into play, particularly his runaround forehand in the deuce court.

Nadal hit six forehand winners for the match – five of them standing in the deuce court.

Nadal’s forehand was more of a force in this match than the previous seven matches by initially playing Djokovic more through the middle of the court in the beginning of the rally.

Nadal has traditionally tried to pound Djokovic’s backhand wider in the ad court, but that has created angle for his opponent to attack wider to his forehand in the ad court and also down the line to his backhand in the deuce court. Most importantly, this has greatly reduced the number of runaround forehands Nadal gets to hit in the deuce court - taking away his deadliest weapon.

In this match, Nadal played more through the middle earlier in the point, giving up less angle to get hurt and also providing less distance for him to run to turn backhands into forehands.

Nadal spoke of this updated strategy in his post-match interview. “After that (returns), against his forehand, I try to not open a lot the court. When you open the court to him, against most of the players you are in a good situation, but against him not, because he's able to open you more later with the next shot.

“So I try to hit long, but more to the middle. Then I try to have the control of the point with my forehand. After that I felt that I can change the directions.”

This is a clear change of strategy in baseline rallies that renders Djokovic’s backhand wing less effective and Nadal’s forehand in the ad court more effective.

Nadal was also more open to come forward to finish points at the net where he was a perfect seven for seven, including two overhead winners.

There is no denying that Djokovic, who lost his grandfather earlier in the tournament, was not at his best in the match, but there is also clear evidence that Nadal’s game plan has evolved to counter his higher-ranked opponent.

After seven consecutive losses, Nadal has finally made some chess moves that have paid off. Now it’s Djokovic’s turn to regroup, study the match video, and make some moves of his own.

Craig O'Shannessy is the founder of the Brain Game , a tennis analysis website that uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game.

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