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Brain Game: Roger's New Rafa Tactics

Rome, Italy

Federer© Getty ImagesRoger Federer's attacking style did not pay off this time.

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

Roger Federer adopted a vastly different game style than normal against Rafael Nadal in his 6-1, 6-3 loss in Sunday’s Internazionali BNL d'Italia final.

Federer was much more offensive in all areas of his game and while his forehand let him down finishing points (15 errors to Nadal’s seven) it was definitely a step in the right direction in trying to battle Nadal on clay on his terms.

The scoreboard was not as kind to him this time around, but his game plan was far more impressive. Many times in his 20 losses to Nadal, Federer has looked better in a match but his passive baseline strategy gave him little chance of victory. 

On Sunday he tried to dictate a lot more than usual, but Nadal’s brilliance and Federer's own looseness proved to be the difference. 

In all four areas of the game – serving, returning, rallying and approaching – Federer attacked Nadal like we have not seen in years. Nadal responded with magnificent tennis and played one of his best matches in his comeback to thwart Federer and capture his 24th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title.

Don’t be fooled by the scoreboard; Federer’s updated game plan was absolutely correct. A lot of times in tennis you may still fail as you manufacture a new pathway, even for the elite players of the game. 

Federer won six of the first nine points of the match and served and volleyed twice in the opening game to signal his aggressiveness. The intent was correct; it was Federer's inability to sustain the attacking success that was the problem for the Swiss.

Federer Serving
Federer served and volleyed eight times (six in the first set), winning 75% (6/8). That helped create shorter points to stop Nadal running his favourite grueling baseline patterns. Federer directed 17 serves out wide to Nadal’s backhand in the deuce court, making 10 and winning six. He also surprisingly hit seven second serves out wide, winning three of them. The tactic didn’t deliver in Rome, but it may be something that bears fruit in Paris.

In the Ad court, Federer again went out wide as his primary pattern, hitting 13 first serves there, making only six and winning four. Federer’s secondary tactic was serving down the middle, where he attempted nine, made six, but only won two points for the match. Nadal was returning like a man possessed. 

Federer Returning
Nadal dominated with his first serve, making Federer hit 86% (25/29) of backhands from his first serve. Federer is normally content to slice backhand returns to begin the point, but he came over 89% (26/29) to try and attack Nadal first. Interestingly, all four first serves directed to Federer’s forehand were body jam serves in the Ad court and Federer made four return errors, including one into the net on match point. 

Nadal didn’t drop a point on his second serve in the opening set and finished winning 72% (8/11) for the match, but it’s been a long time since Federer has shown such tenacity to turn second serve backhand returns into forehands. 

Nadal directed 100% of his 11 second serves at Federer’s backhand, but Federer ran around seven of them to upgrade to his more aggressive forehand return. In the first set Nadal hit four of his five second serves in the deuce court and Federer ran around every single one of them to hit a forehand return.  Federer ended up with seven backhand and five forehand return errors.

Federer Net Points
This was another attacking area of the game in which Federer put up big numbers. Federer finished at the net 30% (29/95) of total points, amazing for him on clay against Nadal. Federer was not about to stay back and out-grind Nadal this time around. 

Nadal, FedererFederer fans have waited a long time to see him so committed to coming forward to change the normal baseline dynamic against Nadal. Federer also hit five drop shots, all from his backhand, but could only manage to win one of those points. At least it wasn’t a 30-ball exchange with Federer getting pounded up high to his backhand deep behind the baseline. Federer won 52% (11/21) of normal approach points, which is an extremely high number coming forward in their overall rivalry.

Federer Rallying 
Federer played much bigger from the back of the court, which proved to be a double-edged sword. It was exactly the right game style needed for victory, but he could not keep the ball in the court enough to make it happen. Federer hit two forehand and two backhand winners and one huge forehand return winner to get back to deuce in Nadal’s opening service game of the second set. But he committed 31 groundstroke errors (16 backhand/15 forehand), which was more than double Nadal’s total of 15 (eight backhand/seven forehand). 

Federer’s coach, Paul Annacone, may not like the scoreboard at the end of the match, but he definitely will like the commitment from his player to take the match more into his own hands. In a lot of ways it was a nice dress rehearsal for Paris and a look at his best chance of beating Nadal should they meet at Roland Garros.

Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game.

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Brain Game, Roger Federer

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