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Brain Game: Rafa Brings Opponents To Breaking Point

Internazionali BNL d’Italia Final

Nadal© Getty ImagesNadal saved six of the seven break points he faced in the Rome final.

Craig O'Shannessy breaks down the Internazionali BNL d’Italia final.

The toughest point to win in tennis has once again become break point on Rafael Nadal’s serve.

Nadal saved six of seven break points to defeat Novak Djokovic 7-5, 6-3 to win his sixth Internazionali BNL d’Italia Masters title in Rome on Sunday. It is one thing to get to break point against Nadal on clay – it’s an entirely different proposition to convert it.

Nowhere in a match is Nadal’s mental and emotional strength more on display than when his back is against the wall facing break point on his serve. Djokovic was able to break Nadal once in the first set to get back on serve at 3-3, but went 0/6 on break point opportunities in the second set as Nadal simply refused to yield.

What also made it tough for Djokovic was scoreboard pressure as he was already down a break every time he got the opportunity to break Nadal.

Djokovic Break Point Opportunities





What Happened


3-2, 30/40



Forehand Error - Nadal got the ball he wanted but netted a run-around forehand in the deuce court.


7-5, 1-0, 0/40



Backhand Return Error – Nadal hits a great wide slider that Djokovic barely manages to touch.


7-5, 1-0, 15/40



Overhead Winner – After serving a let, Nadal rallies & approaches to the backhand and finishes strongly.


7-5, 1-0, 30/40



Backhand Error – Djokovic misses long cross court trying to make Nadal pay for running around his forehand.


7-5, 1-0, Ad Out



Forehand Error – Djokovic sprayed a forehand long going down the line from very deep behind the baseline.


7-5, 2-1, Ad Out



Forehand Volley Error - Djokovic approached to the backhand & Nadal defended low cross & missed a touch volley wide right.


7-5, 2-1, Ad Out



Forehand Error - Djokovic has control but mis-times a softer forehand standing in the Ad court and puts it in the net.   

A major turning point in the match was when Nadal escaped from a 0-40 hole in his first service game of the second set.  It was a golden opportunity for Djokovic to get back on serve at the start of the second set but Djokovic could never get ahead on any of the break points to hurt Nadal.

Nadal’s strength in this specific area of saving break points invites the question: How is that he only won 53% of total points (76 to 67), 64% of total serve points but was able to win 86% (6 of 7) of his points facing break point on his serve? Is the answer better tactics, better shot selection, better point construction or maybe just good fortune.

The better answer is that Nadal is the best player in the world on clay because he is the toughest mentally, driven by a simple refusal to break under pressure. He doesn't panic. He doesn't play low percentage tennis. He doesn't run away from the battle.

Nadal was also brutally efficient on break points in the semi-final against David Ferrer, saving 9/10 (90%) while converting 4/11 (36%). Nadal was only broken three times for the entire tournament in Rome in five matches, saving 20/23 (86%) break points against his serve. It’s tough to beat him if you can’t break him.

Over the past 52 weeks, Nadal is fifth on the list of RICOH ATP MatchFacts break points saved leaders (72%), close behind the world’s best in Milos Raonic (74%). Consider that Nadal saved 85% of break points in the final and 86% total for the tournament in Rome and you get a clearer understanding of why he is so dominant on clay. It’s his mind.

Nadal now turns to Roland Garros, where he is looking to become the first player in history to win the title for a seventh time.  A major key to Nadal’s success at the French is his ability to save break points.

In the 2007 final, Nadal saved 16 of 17 break points against Roger Federer to win in four sets. In 2010 the Spaniard saved all eight break points he faced against Robin Soderling. Of the six Roland Garros finals Nadal has played (and won!) he has saved 55 of 68 break points faced (81%).

After victories this year on clay in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and now Rome, Nadal has mustered the mental strength necessary to win again in Paris. Nadal’s win in Rome, especially saving 15/17 break points in the semis and final against Ferrer and Djokovic, gives him the confidence that history can repeat itself in Paris.

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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Brain Game, Rafael Nadal

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