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Brain Game: Rafa Is Clutch When It Counts

New York, U.S.A.

Nadal© Getty ImagesNadal made just 20 unforced errors to Djokovic's 53.

Rafael Nadal barely slipped through the clutches of Novak Djokovic’s clever master plan to win an epic four-set final at the US Open on Monday night. Nadal won 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 with the turning point being his comeback back from 0-40 on his serve at 4-4 in the third set en route to winning eight of the last nine games of the electrifying final.

Nadal was a breath away from a two-sets-to-one deficit but proved unbreakable in the pivotal nine-and-a-half-minute game to regain the momentum that he had emphatically lost 77 minutes earlier when Djokovic broke him for the first time at 2-3 in the second set with a mind-blowing 54-shot, 78-second rally on break point.

That one magical point produced a standing ovation in Arthur Ashe Stadium and around the world.

It took Nadal well over an hour to recover from losing that point but, as he has done his entire career, he thrived on the adversity and clawed back to beat the No. 1 player in the world.

Djokovic hit almost double the amount of winners (46 to 27) to Nadal with the bold primary tactic of walking into the lion’s den and initially attacking the strength of Nadal’s game – his forehand.

Fast & Furious
From the very first point of the match Djokovic looked to crush his forehand big through the Ad court  behind Nadal, catching the Spaniard trying to creep over to turn backhands into forehands in the deuce court. It also opened up a hole in the deuce court to attack Nadal’s backhand later in the point and allowed Djokovic to win the battle of court position and finish more points at the net.

We have been used to seeing Djokovic attack Nadal with his backhand down the line but that was reduced to a secondary tactic behind huge forehands from the Serb through the Ad court. Djokovic’s forehand was the most lethal weapon on Arthur Ashe Stadium as he finished with  22 groundstroke winners (16 forehand/6 backhand) to Nadal’s 17 groundstroke winners (11 forehand/6 backhand).

Djokovic’s forehand winners included a lob, dropshot and a simple rally ball down the middle of the court that Nadal slipped and fell over trying to hit back, but it was the eight bruising winners rifled wide through the Ad court that rattled Nadal’s cage the most.
Nadal committed 25 forehand errors, including 20 that came with him standing in the Ad court. Of the 20 Ad court errors, 17 were made standing closer to the alley (or outside it) than the middle of the court as Djokovic relentlessly pushed Nadal wider and wider.

Lesson Learned
Nadal ultimately grew wise to the tactic and with Djokovic serving at break point at 0-1, 30-40 in the fourth set, he set the perfect ambush to break serve and surge to the finish line. It was the third break point of the game and Nadal hit a weak backhand return into the Ad court service box that Djokovic moved forward to hammer back behind him. Nadal had seen the same play develop for almost three hours and he left early, anticipating to his left before Djokovic had hit the ball.

From the middle of the alley Nadal flicked a forehand winner back down the line that proved to be one of the final nails in the coffin for Djokovic.

Nadal took initial control of the match and led 6-2, 2-3 on serve 78 minutes in before all hell broke loose with the 54-shot rally at 30-40 that Djokovic won to break serve for the first time. Djokovic won the previous point at 30-30 with Nadal playing too passively, going from hitting four forehands in a row to hitting four backhands in a row.

Djokovic seized the moment and snuck in on a backhand slice and executed an excellent backspin, backhand drop volley to get to break point.

Point Of The Match
Djokovic dominated the ensuing 54-shot rally, hitting 14 backhands and 13 forehands, forcing Nadal to hit 18 backhands and only nine forehands before Nadal finally netted a half volley backhand standing inside the baseline in the deuce court. Nadal ran 472.5 feet to Djokovic’s 424.7 feet in the point and Djokovic floated on the energy from the crowd for well over an hour. While he got broken in the very next game he would break again for 5-3 after Nadal squandered six game points.

Djokovic took charge of the match when he broke Nadal to love to open the third set - the third service game in a row he broke the Spaniard. Nadal was desperate not to go down two breaks to begin the third set but fell to Ad out at 0-2 before Djokovic missed a backhand long in what was as big a miss as any he would make in the match.
Clutch Time
Nadal broke to get back to 3-3 in the third but it was the drama of the 4-4 game that broke the match wide open. Nadal fell to 0-40 but a half-volley forehand winner from the baseline saved the first break point. Djokovic’s best chance to break came at 15-40 as he made Nadal hit five slice backhands in the rally and had an opportunity to approach, but didn’t. He ended up dumping a forehand in the net chasing his favorite strategy hitting wide in the Ad court to Nadal’s forehand. At 30-40 Nadal hit a 125mph ace right down the middle – his only ace for the entire match. It was clutch time and Nadal went and grabbed the match back as it was perilously close to slipping away.

Nadal’s victory was built around consistency, patience and dominating the important moments as he only committed 20 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 53. As is usually the case, it’s not the player that hits the most winners who is victorious. This match produced 68% errors (150/223) and it was Nadal who found a way to reduce his exposure in this critical area just enough to get over the line.

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

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