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Brain Game: Rafa's Heavy Forehand

Paris, France

Nadal© Getty ImagesRafael Nadal hit nearly twice as many forehand winners as David Ferrer in the Roland Garros final.

Craig O'Shannessy breaks down the Roland Garros final.

David Ferrer won more break points than anyone the past two weeks at Roland Garros but could not convert enough when it mattered to fall to Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in Sundays final. 

Ferrer led the tournament with 45 service breaks but could only nail 3/12 (25%) break points compared to Nadal’s 8/16 (50%) in a cold and wet encounter that made offense difficult to produce. 

Ferrer misfired on his nine unconverted break points, committing three forehand errors while Nadal raised his level with three forehand winners. The other three opportunities went begging when Ferrer put a backhand into the net, missed a backhand return and Nadal crushed a cross court backhand passing shot.

Ferrer played brilliant tennis to reach his first Grand Slam final without dropping a set but Nadal presents his toughest match-up as he has to adjust to playing a lefty and specifically modify his natural Ad court patterns to attack Nadal’s backhand in the deuce court. 

Nadal on the other hand was able to play a game style that he felt most comfortable with on a court he may as well call his own as he swept to a record breaking eighth title in Paris. 

On the biggest points, on the biggest stage, the real difference between the two players was the venom they could bring with their forehands.

Nadal and Ferrer were very even with forehand errors (Nadal 22/Ferrer 20) and backhand errors (Nadal 23/Ferrer 22) and dead even with backhand winners with seven each. What separated the two Spaniards from the back of the court was that Nadal was able to manufacture almost double the amount of forehand winners with 19 to Ferrer’s 10. This was the difference maker on Sunday in Paris. 

Half of Nadal’s eight converted break points finished with forehands as he crushed two forehand winners and Ferrer misfired with two forehand errors. Nadal’s forehand also forced a backhand error and generally dictated the baseline patterns of play from start to finish. 

NadalNadal’s 19 forehand winners came from all over the court, with 10 standing in the deuce court and nine in the Ad court. Of the 10 deuce court winners, eight of them were when he was standing close to or inside the deuce court alley – an extreme position that offers three advantages for Nadal. First is an upgrade from his less potent backhand wing; secondly he now has all angles of the court available to attack and lastly he freezes his opponent and steals their anticipation with the wonderful disguise of the open-stance shot.  Ferrer must wait until the ball is off Nadal’s racquet to figure out where it is going and that is too late to do anything with but react.

Ferrer did play the correct, aggressive game style in the final but the higher risk, lower percentage patterns were not something he was able to sustain for any length of time.

Ferrer directed almost three out of four (39/53 = 73%) first serves to Nadal’s backhand to try and gain an early advantage in the point. Ferrer directed all 26 of his second serves at Nadal’s backhand, but there was a massive difference in what Nadal hit between the deuce and Ad courts.

Ferrer was able to keep control on his second serve in the deuce court, making Nadal hit a backhand return all 13 times he served there but in the Ad court Nadal ran around and hit a forehand 12 of the 13 times Ferrer started the point with a second serve.  

The battleground to upgrade to a forehand was also hotly contested with the first groundstroke hit after the serve. Ferrer actually did better in this area, hitting a forehand as the first shot after the serve 86% of the time to Nadal’s 58%. 

When Ferrer could not find an advantage at the back of the court he snuck into the net behind some clever approach and drops shots to try and mix things up. Ferrer won a respectable 72% (13/18) of all points coming forward, including three of his five drop shots. 

NadalUltimately Nadal triumphed for an eighth time in Paris because of a strategic edge from the back of the court with his heavy forehand and a mental edge that makes it so difficult for opponents to create fear or doubt in his mind. Ferrer said after the match that Nadal was the best mentally he has ever seen in his career. 

It was always going to be a tough day for Ferrer to hurt Nadal because of the match up, the conditions and the occasion but the focus should be on celebrating Ferrer’s wonderful tournament and Nadal’s history making victory than a fairly routine, straight-sets final. After all, only once in the last 60 matches has Nadal fallen in Paris. Long live the king.

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

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