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Brain Game: Nadal Attacks Djokovic Forehand To Turn Tide

Montreal, Canada

Nadal, Djokovic© Getty ImagesRafael Nadal found success in attacking Novak Djokovic's forehand.

Craig O'Shannessy breaks down the Montreal semi-final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

Rafael Nadal successfully attacked Novak Djokovic’s forehand as the latest strategy adjustment in their record rivalry to move through to the final of the Coupe Rogers in Montreal last night.

Nadal won only two more points than Djokovic (97 to 95) in winning 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2), but played smarter and controlled more baseline rallies than we have seen from their battles in recent times. 

Nadal switched gears in Montreal in pounding Djokovic’s forehand, extracting 35 groundstroke errors and 12 return errors to create a consistent pattern of play he could lock on to, especially in the deciding third set tie-break.

Nadal raced to a 6-0 lead in the tie-break and won it 7-2 as Djokovic committed six forehand errors, including five in a row after Nadal won the opening point with an easy forehand volley winner after approaching to Djokovic’s forehand. Nadal successfully developed attacking Djokovic’s forehand in the deuce court over three sets and ran it to perfection when he needed it the most at the end of the match.

In a very even contest on the scoreboard, Nadal always seemed to have his nose in front after breaking in the opening game of the match and not having to face a break point in the deciding third set. He played with more confidence than normal against Djokovic as he was able to control a greater number of baseline rallies and have a hole in the court he could get to on the big points.

Djokovic committed 10 forehand errors in the opening set, 10 in the second set and 15 in the deciding set as Nadal chose to hit the ball far more where his opponent didn’t want it rather than where he normally prefers to hit it.

Nadal has struggled against Djokovic on hard courts in his career (now 6-11) mainly because he could not break down Djokovic’s backhand in his favorite Ad court lefty pattern. Djokovic’s backhand was once again rock solid in this match with five winners and only 13 groundstroke errors. The difference is that Nadal did not overplay it, which was definitely the case beginning in 2011 where he lost seven straight times to Djokovic, trying to force his old tactic on an improved opponent. 

This is the first time since the 2010 US Open that Nadal has beaten Djokovic on an outdoor hard court, going 0-4 in the past three years.  Nadal and Djokovic are now tied with Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe for the most matches against the same opponent in the Open Era.

Nadal’s improved baseline tactics were strongly supported with some excellent serving, as he made 70 per cent of first serves, which went up to 75 per cent in the third set when he needed it the most. In the deuce court, Nadal stuck with his favourite lefty pattern of serving down the middle, with 25 first serves to Djokovic’s backhand and only six to the forehand. But he completely flipped the tactic in the Ad court, making 27 first serves to Djokovic’s forehand and only eight to his backhand. 

Nadal was always looking to hit a forehand as his first shot after the serve, hitting 86 per cent (57/66) as the first shot after the serve and winning 59 per cent (34) of those points. Of the 34 points Nadal won with his Serve + 1 forehand play, he directed  just over half (18) immediately to Djokovic’s forehand – a sharp contrast to his traditional tactic of firing a forehand missile immediately at the right hander’s backhand in the Ad court. 

Djokovic served poorly in comparison, with five double faults in the opening set (seven total), including two on break points to gift Nadal two breaks of serve. In the deuce court, Djokovic targeted Nadal’s backhand return out wide, winning 94 per cent (16/17) of his first service points by pulling Nadal wide off the court to begin the point. This was a rare area where Djokovic was immediately able to establish the point. 

Nadal will start a heavy favourite against Canadian Milos Raonic in today’s final – who he is 3-0 against in their FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry.

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

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