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Brain Game: Rafa Turns Milos’ Missiles Into Boomerangs

Montreal, Canada

Nadal© AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal's return of serve was one of the keys to his win over Milos Raonic.

Craig O'Shannessy breaks down the Montreal final between Rafael Nadal and Milos Raonic.

In the opening game of Sunday’s Coupe Rogers final, Milos Raonic fired a 149mph ace out wide in the Ad court that electrified the crowd and gave hope that he had the necessary tools to beat Rafael Nadal on such a big stage.

But the reality of constructing points, developing patterns, playing defence and breaking down an opponent’s will soon set in and Nadal dominated the match in all of these areas en route to a 6-2, 6-2 victory to earn his 25th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown.

The real issue for Raonic was not how hard he could hit his serve but what he was going to do with the ball when it came back. Nadal’s masterly performance reminded everyone that the top of the food chain in world tennis at the moment is dominated by the best returners in the world – not the biggest servers.

Raonic may have one of the biggest flamethrowers in the game, but the reality is that more than half his first serves came back in play as did around 70 per cent of his second serves. Three quarters (64/86) of all points for the match needed further attention from the back of the court. 

The majority of points in tennis are not like shooting an arrow, where it’s a quick one-way ride to a final destination. They are far more like throwing a boomerang as you need to expect the ball to come back and plan to be in the right position to receive it. 

Raonic, 22, had an outstanding tournament in reaching his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 final and moving to No. 10 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, the first Canadian to do so. Raonic is the youngest member of the Top 10 and he will learn from lessons like Sunday’s as he continues his rise. 

Raonic was on the back foot when rallies began. He hit 46 first serves for the match and was only able to win exactly half (23) of those points. Nadal, with a comparatively slower first serve, hit 40 first serves and won 28 (70 per cent).  Of Raonic’s 23 first serves made, he only hit four aces and Nadal committed seven return errors. So he had to then construct 12 points against one of the best baseliners in the world. 

Things were even tougher on second serves for Raonic, where Nadal only made four return errors from 23 serves. Raonic hit three double faults (Nadal none), leaving Raonic with 16 points to find a way through or around Nadal. 

Returning serve was an issue for Raonic as well. He hit 20 backhand returns (15 first serve/five second serve), committed eight backhand return errors and only won four points for the match starting with a backhand return. 

Once the rally began, it was Nadal’s forehand that dominated the back of the court with nine winners and only 10 errors. Raonic, who was looking to pull the trigger on almost every shot, only hit three forehand groundstroke winners and committed 12 errors. 

Raonic was always looking to hit run-around forehands and protect his backhand, but he made six backhand errors from 19 total backhands in the match – about one in every three shots. Raonic did try and approach to keep the points shorter but could only win 50 percent (6/12) at the front of the court. 

Raonic’s urgency to win the point before it really got started backfired against one of the most experienced baseliners in the world. Raonic’s inconsistency relieved pressure on Nadal. This empowered Nadal to play more aggressively after he neutralised the point. 

Often times losses like these are inevitable and even necessary for younger players to help figure out the right mix of aggression and consistency. Raonic will be a better player for the experience and you expect he will soon win a match from the lessons learnt in Montreal. After all, everyone has to take their lumps.

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

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