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Brain Game: Nadal Wins Forehand Festival

Indian Wells, U.S.A.

Nadal© Getty ImagesIn the BNP Paribas Open final, Nadal hit a serve and then a forehand 85 per cent of the time.

Craig O'Shannessy breaks down the BNP Paribas Open final between Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro.

The 2013 final of the BNP Paribas Open proved to be a spectacular festival of the forehand.

Rafael Nadal defeated Juan Martin Del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in one of the greatest examples in the modern era that the forehand is clearly the ultimate weapon of choice in today’s game.

Nadal and Del Potro combined to hit 40 forehand winners and only five backhand winners with 56 per cent of total points (100 of 177) ending with either a forehand winner or error.

Both players upgraded to a forehand at every opportunity, often running into or even past the alley in their backhand court to crush their more dangerous groundstroke. Turning backhands into forehands helped turn neutral balls into offensive situations and often doubled the target area as it could now be effectively hit down the line as well as cross court.

The other major advantage of run-around forehands is the disguise it brings with the open stance, robbing any anticipation the opponent may have of where the shot is going.

Nadal dominated with 22 forehand winners, hitting eight in both of the opening two sets and finishing with six in the deciding set. Del Potro hit 18 forehand winners with six in the first set, five in the second and seven in the deciding set.

Del Potro also had a forehand return winner which won him break point in the opening set to get back on serve at 2-3 after falling behind 0-3 to begin the match. He ran well outside the alley in the Ad court to rifle it back cross court behind Nadal to climb back into the match.

Both players committed more forehand errors than winners with Nadal making 30 (27 groundstroke/3 return) and Del Potro 29 (26 groundstroke/3 return).  Both Nadal and Del Potro will take those numbers all day long as what also must be considered is how many errors their forehands force on the other side of the net and the pressure it builds in their opponent’s mind.

Serve +1
A major part of the dominant forehand strategy comes into play with a tactic called Serve +1 where the server hits a forehand as the first shot after serve – essentially combining the strengths of the serve and the forehand into one unit.

Nadal hit a serve and then a forehand 85 per cent (53/62) of the time, winning 66 per cent of these points. Del Potro hit a serve and then a forehand slightly more at 87 per cent (68/78) of the time but could only manage to win 54 per cent of those points.

This is a key tactic used by many of the world’s best players but Nadal and Del Potro are more committed, or obsessed, than most with this ultimate first strike combination.

Both players heavily targeted their opponent’s backhand with their serve direction which also helped them hit a forehand as their first shot after the serve.

On first serves, Del Potro made Nadal hit 85 per cent backhands but only 61 per cent of the time on second serves as Nadal was able to run around several second serves directed to his backhand and hit them as forehands. Nadal was so persistent with this strategy that he was even able to create forehand returns off second serves that were landing on the center line in the Ad court directed towards his backhand.

Nadal also targeted Del Potro’s backhand with his first serve, making him hit 71 per cent backhands but Del Potro hit 77 per cent forehands off Nadal’s weaker second serve. Del Potro in particular stood far behind the baseline to return second serves to allow him enough time and space to run around and wind up with heavier artillery.

Both players would at times used the surprise strategy of serving wide to their opponent’s forehand on second serves to hopefully catch them cheating running around their backhand.

Nadal ultimately wore Del Potro down, turning it into a physical battle of legs and lungs. The final was as good as it gets at showcasing forehand firepower and the willingness to hit it from any part of the court.

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. Follow Brain Game On Twitter.

 

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