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Brain Game: Djokovic Stops The Nadal Runaround

Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters

DjokovicAFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic celebrates winning his 14th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophy in Monte-Carlo.

Craig O'Shannessy breaks down the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters final.

Novak Djokovic finally got Rafael Nadal's backhand to buckle. 

Djokovic's dominant 6-2, 7-6(1) victory in the final of Sunday's Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters was built around the simple yet ruthlessly efficient tactic of breaking down an opponent's backhand. 

Djokovic pressured Nadal into 28 backhand groundstroke and return errors in the two-set final, which is exactly the same amount Nadal committed in four sets in the 2012 Roland Garros final - the last time they competed on clay. 

It also represents an almost five-time increase in the amount of backhand errors Nadal made in the 2012 Monte-Carlo final. Nadal only made six backhand errors to defeat Djokovic 6-3, 6-1 in 2012's one-sided encounter.

In the final, Djokovic was able to isolate Nadal's backhand by taking his own backhand down the line as well as dominating their deuce court exchanges with penetrating cross-court forehands. This is not a new tactic for Djokovic - just one he executed a little better and Nadal had a lot more trouble with. With Djokovic leading 6-2, 1-0 a Hawk-Eye graphic showed Djokovic was hitting 48% of his backhands down the line to attack Nadal's backhand. It worked... and then some.

Nadal's Backhand Numbers (Monte-Carlo finals in 2012-'13 and 2012 Roland Garros final)

 
'13 M-Carlo*
'12 M-Carlo^
'12 R.Garros#
Backhand Errors
22
6
23
Backhand Return Errors
6
0
5
Backhand Winners
1
2
4
Backhand Return Winners
0
1
0

*Djokovic won 61 76(1)
^Nadal won 63 61
#Nadal won 64 63 26 75

Djokovic got more than a third (35%) of his total points in yesterday's final from pressuring Nadal's backhand into submission. This represents almost double the amount as a percentage of total points from the 2012 Roland Garros final and more than triple the 2012 Monte Carlo final. 

Nadal Backhand Errors vs. Total Points Played

 
'13 M-Carlo
'12 M-Carlo
'12 R.Garros
Nadal Backhand Errors
/Total Points
28/139 = 20%
6/86 = 6%
28/241 = 11%

Djokovic's success with his deuce court tactic also had the added benefit of robbing Nadal of his most lethal groundstroke - the run-around forehand in the deuce court. Nadal did hit nine forehand winners for the match, with five of them coming when Nadal was standing in the deuce court or even all the way outside the alley in the deuce court to hit a forehand. But Nadal did not have the same urgency as he normally does to turn backhands into forehands, especially with his venomous Serve + 1 tactic. That's where he looks to hit a forehand as the very first groundstroke after his serve. 

When Nadal started the point with the combination of a serve and then a backhand he only won two points for the entire match. 

Nadal Serve + 1 Tactic (Points Won)

 
'13 M-Carlo
'12 M-Carlo
'12 R.Garros
Nadal Serve + 1 Forehands
24/46 = 52%
13/18 = 72%
32/63 = 50%
Nadal Serve + 1 Backhands
2/16 = 12%
2/4= 50%
7/15= 46%

Djokovic must be given some credit for making Nadal hit more backhands but more weight must go to the fact that Nadal didn't show the same obsession with dominating the deuce court with his run-around forehand - especially as the first shot after the serve. Once Nadal started slipping behind in the point it became too much of a mountain to climb against the No. 1 player in the world.

For Nadal to hit more backhands in a Serve + 1 strategy in two sets in Sunday's final than in four sets in the 2012 Roland Garros final against Djokovic is a red flag.

Evidence of Nadal not getting early control of the point was illustrated with Djokovic winning 10 of the first 12 points when the rally lasted less than 5 shots. Djokovic was able to double team Nadal's backhand with his more superior backhand and strong forehands cross court. Djokovic also dominated the longer points during the final - winning 23/36 (63%) of rallies lasting 10 shots or more. That used to be unthinkable against Nadal on clay. 

Djokovic won 25 of the first 37 points (67%) to begin the match and 11 of the last 12 (91%) to finish it. Nadal's only brief spots of sunshine came in the second set when he led 4-2 and also served for the set at 6-5 but was broken to love. 

The next counter-move by Nadal must be to limit exposure to his backhand by controlling the Ad court once again with his lethal run-around forehand otherwise we may well have a brand new French Open champion in a few weeks' time.

Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Learn more at braingametennis.com

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