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Brain Game: Unbreakable Nadal

Cincinnati, U.S.A.

Nadal© Getty ImagesRafael Nadal has his serve broken just four times (4/18) in Cincinnati.

Craig O'Shannessy examines the Cincinnati final between Rafael Nadal and John Isner.

Nothing matters more in a tennis match than converting break points.

Getting to break point against Rafael Nadal is one thing, but converting it is so much more difficult, it is almost like playing an entirely different sport.

Nadal defeated John Isner 7-6(8), 7-6(3) in the Western & Southern Open final at Cincinnati on Sunday and saved all three break points he faced to win back-to-back hard-court titles for the first time in his career.

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Crunch time in this match came late in the first set as Nadal faced two break points at 5-6, 15/40 – which also carried the added weight of being two set points for Isner.

At 15/40, Nadal hit a 110 miles per hour hard slice down the middle that Isner barely reached with his backhand return and sent it floating wide down the line. This was the primary first serve pattern for Nadal in the deuce court, attempting 22 serves down the T, making 17 and winning 13. The effectiveness of this serve was complemented by Nadal’s secondary pattern out wide in the deuce court to Isner’s forehand, where he attempted 11 first serves and won all seven of the first serves he made.

Nadal faced his second break point on the next point at 30/40 and the most observers, including Isner, thought Nadal would use his favourite lefty slider out wide to Isner’s backhand in the Ad court.

In an ominous message to the rest of the ATP World Tour of just how much confidence Nadal has at the moment, he sent a 113mph ace right down the middle to Isner’s forehand. Isner, anticipating the serve going the other way, didn’t move as his second set point went flying right by him. In the Ad court Nadal mixed his first serve location a lot more than normal, attempting 18 first serves down the middle and winning 10 compared to only 12 out wide to his favorite lefty location, where he won eight.

One of Nadal’s many strengths is to put his opponent first and get inside his head to figure out what he is anticipating, staying a step ahead with the patterns during the match.

This was clearly evident on the next point at deuce as Nadal served another pressure-packed ace – this time a gutsy second serve out wide to Isner’s forehand, who was headed the other way anticipating it going to his backhand. Isner had been trying to run around second serves all match to upgrade from a backhand to a forehand return, so this was the perfect time to catch him at his own game.

Isner then missed a backhand return long off a first serve on the next point to send the set to a tie-break. From 15/40, Isner didn’t get a ball back in the court as Nadal took his game, both physically and mentally, to another level.

Nadal, again, used the surprise second serve wide to the forehand in the deuce court at 5-5 in the first set tie-break, as Isner barely got a racquet on it and sliced a forehand return long. Another huge point where he successfully anticipated Isner’s movements and strategy. Isner held his third set point with Nadal serving at 6-7 and Nadal again surprised with a first serve to the forehand, which Isner sliced back to Nadal’s forehand and Isner made a backhand error from deep in the court on the next shot. Nadal won the first set with a wicked forehand jam second serve at 9-8 that Isner could not get back over the net.

Nadal saved his third break point of the match at 3-3, 30/40 in the second set, when he again jammed Isner’s forehand with a second serve and ended up at the net hitting a deft backhand volley winner two shots later.

Nadal was only broken four times from 18 opportunities (22 per cent) for the tournament, while he was able to break 13 times from 35 attempts (37 per cent).  Nadal’s outstanding year so far, in which he has now won nine titles, is built on his toughness in break point situations where he is third best on tour in both break points converted and saved.

A key tactic for both players in the match was hitting a forehand as the first shot after the serve, effectively combining the strength of the forehand and serve into one unit to begin the point. Nadal hit a serve and a forehand 86 per cent (45/52) of the time to begin the point while Isner was even more impressive doing it 94 per cent (48/51) of the time.

Once the point got past the first two shots it was the forehand from both players that dominated the back of the court as well. The only backhand winner for the match came on the very first point with Nadal hitting a passing shot down the line and from there on both players would combine for 33 forehand winners (Isner 21/Nadal 12).

Isner also tried coming to the net when possible but could only win 52 percent (10/19) of the points while Nadal was much more successful winning 71 percent (10/14) of his points finishing at the front of the court.

Nadal’s successful campaigns at Roland Garros, where he has won eight times, are built around winning ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid. His clay-court confidence especially comes from saving break points so he arrives in Paris feeling like Superman. Nadal has now won successive ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles in Montreal and Cincinnati and opponents have only managed to convert exactly 4/18 in both events (8/36 total = 22%). There is a certain sense of déjà vu in Nadal’s preparation as he heads to New York searching for his 13th career Grand Slam championship title.

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

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Related Topics:

Brain Game, Rafael Nadal, John Isner

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