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Brain Game: Rafa's Shield Just As Mighty As His Sword

Roland Garros Final

Nadal© AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal made 20 fewer backhand errors than Novak Djokovic in the final.

Craig O'Shannessy breaks down the Roland Garros final.

Rafael Nadal’s historic victory at Roland Garros on Monday can be greatly attributed to one shot in particular – his backhand.

Nadal’s backhand came under ferocious attack by World No. 1 Novak Djokovic over the two day, four-set final but it stood firm and defended magnificently to help Nadal win his 11th Grand Slam title.

Nadal had only four backhand winners in four sets but more importantly only yielded 23 groundstroke errors and five return errors to constantly repel attack after attack from the World No. 1.

For Nadal, the relationship between his forehand and backhand is exactly like a sword and a shield.

Think of Nadal as a modern day gladiator who defends with his backhand (the shield) and attacks with his forehand (the sword).

Defense won this title for Nadal and his backhand was what kept him alive to do so.

Nadal and Djokovic Backhand Numbers

  Nadal Djokovic
Backhand groundstroke winners 4 8
Backhand return winners 0 2
Backhand groundstroke errors 23 37
Backhand return errors 5 11

Nadal only had four backhand winners for the match but they all came at crucial times to either create or convert a break point. The first was a crosscourt bullet with both feet outside the alley to gain break point in the opening game of the match, sending a message to Djokovic to attack here at his own peril.

The second was a drop shot winner to get to set point in the first set in a rally that featured nine backhands and three forehands for Nadal. The third winner was on set point to win the second set and the fourth winner was a passing shot to get back on serve at 2-2 in the fourth set.

But for the rest of the match Nadal held up his backhand shield to defend against Djokovic, who took massive cuts with his own lethal groundstrokes looking to draw blood from the Spaniard.

Djokovic spent most of the match standing on or around the baseline hammering at Nadal’s backhand to either wound him to draw the error, or to create a hole in the Ad court to hit a winner later in the point.

Djokovic hit 18 forehand groundstroke winners with exactly half of them (9) coming from hitting to Nadal’s backhand first and then hitting a winner standing in the Ad court through the vacant hole cross court to Nadal’s forehand.

Nadal and Djokovic Forehand Numbers

  Nadal Djokovic
Forehand groundstroke winners 22 18
Forehand return winners 0 1
Forehand groundstroke errors 37 31
Forehand return errors 7 6

As good as Djokovic’s backhand is, 13 of his 18 forehand winners were standing in the Ad court where he ran around his backhand to upgrade to heavier artillery.

The match had several momentum shifts and rain delays and had to be finished on Monday with Nadal leading two sets to one but down a break 1-2 in the fourth set.

With the finish line in sight, Nadal would rely even more on his backhand to stop the charging Djokovic, who won eight straight games from 0-2 down in the third set to go a break up in the fourth set before rain suspended play for the evening.

From 1-2 in the fourth set on Monday, Nadal’s backhand was an incredible defensive weapon, only giving up three ground stroke errors and one return error. Nadal would not make any backhand errors (or winners) in the last four games of the match from 4-3 onwards.

His shield was there for him when he needed it most.

On Monday, Djokovic was able to get it more to Nadal’s backhand when he was serving, making him hit 53 backhands in five service games due to the initial control of the point with his serve.

But when Nadal served, he was able to keep Djokovic away from his backhand far more effectively. Nadal served four times in the fourth set, and only hit 16 backhands in those four service games. That enabled him to use his sword a lot more when serving, where he hit 36 forehands for four winners and only one error.

In all Monday play, Nadal was able to hit 91 forehands and only 69 backhands (including returns) which gave him more control, created more pressure, and contributed heavily to his victory.

Nadal’s backhand often does not get the recognition it should as it is not always clear what role it actually performs in battle.

On Monday it was almost impenetrable, and in fact it was in the last four games of the match where he hit 29 backhands for no errors. During that same period, he hit 34 forehands for two winners and four errors.

The longest point of the entire tournament, with 44 shots, occurred at the start of the fourth set with Nadal serving at 15-15. Djokovic controlled the shot direction of the entire point, making Nadal have to hit 16 backhands and only six forehands. Djokovic would strike at the backhand first and if it didn’t falter, would then hunt for a winner wide to Nadal’s forehand in the Ad court.

Djokovic made Nadal hit nine backhands in the last 10 shots of that rally before Nadal finally put a backhand in the net when he was stretched wide in the alley in the deuce court.

It took 16 heavy blows to Nadal’s shield before it yielded an error, producing one of the greatest points of the tournament and highlighted just how much both players were willing to suffer to win a solitary point.

For the Spanish gladiator, the shield was just as important as the sword to secure victory on the French battlefield known as Court Philippe Chatrier.

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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