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Brain Game: The Backhand Effect

London, England

Djokovic© Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic's backhand proved decisive against Rafael Nadal.

Novak Djokovic’s backhand is an extremely disruptive force.

Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-4 to win his third Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London Monday night and has now won 22 straight matches since losing to Nadal in the final of the US Open in New York two months ago.

Djokovic’s backhand was a wrecking ball for Nadal’s primary lefty patterns and was the dominant shot from the back of the court in the final. Djokovic hit five backhand winners which were more than any other groundstroke on either side of the net and his backhand forced many more errors from Nadal who first tried to break it down then played away from it with limited success.

Nadal only managed two forehand and two backhand winners as Djokovic shrunk the court with amazing defense and mesmerising athletic ability that make you certain his entire body is made out of rubber.

What is amazing is that the best forehand in the game (Nadal’s) was beat up by the best backhand in the game (Djokovic’s). That’s not supposed to happen.

Djokovic hit 89 backhands in the Ad court and 87 forehands in the deuce court and took his backhand both cross court and down the line at will to force his patterns of play onto Nadal. Djokovic also added 30 run-around forehands in the Ad court, but still had roughly a 3-1 ratio of backhands to forehands in the Ad court, which is bad strategy for most players, but just what the doctor ordered for Djokovic.

Djokovic did commit 13 backhand errors (Nadal had 14) for the match but the pressure his backhand brought to baseline points more than made up for those limited errors.  A clear example of the pressure that Djokovic’s backhand brings to Nadal was the amount and location of forehand errors from Nadal.  Nadal only had two forehand winners, but had 22 forehand errors, which are extremely different numbers than we are used to seeing from Nadal against other opponents during the tournament.

What’s most interesting is that 17 of the 22 forehand errors were made going to Djokovic’s forehand side in the deuce court. These numbers illustrate the change of strategy he had to make and the respect that Djokovic’s backhand commands.

Djokovic got off to a flying start breaking Nadal in the second game and led 3-0 on the strength of his rock-solid backhand. In the opening three games, Djokovic hit 20 backhands and only 17 forehands and yielded only two backhand errors in winning 12 of the first 16 points. Djokovic hit five winners during this period to signal his aggressive intentions.

Nadal saved a break point that could have seen him down 0-4 and then broke back in the next game and the set was soon even at 3-3. Djokovic broke back to lead 5-3 after winning the point of the match that started with a serve and volley point from Nadal and followed with a Djokovic forehand lob on the dead run and then a quick volley exchange with both players at the net before Djokovic hit a forehand volley winner.

Djokovic then hit two backhand winners leading 5-3, including a lucky half-volley net cord winner at 15-30 that greatly helped him get out of that game.

While Nadal hit 87 per cent of his first serves to Roger Federer’s backhand in his semi-final victory yesterday, Nadal only directed 46 per cent to Djokovic’s backhand in the final. Nadal must modify against Djokovic while he gets to play Federer on his terms.

Djokovic’s backhand stood tall in the last few games at the end of the match as Nadal had one last push to get himself back into the contest. Djokovic only made two errors and hit two winners with his last 23 backhands stretching from the 3-1 game in the second set.

This is the second victory over Nadal in a row for Djokovic (finals of Beijing) after losing the previous three stretching back to the Roland Garros semi-finals. Djokovic’s backhand can take a lot of the credit for winning his seventh title of the season, which is the second highest total of his career.

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

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