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Brain Game: Nadal's Relentless Attack

London, England

Nadal© AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal advanced to his second title match at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, overpowering Roger Federer in straight sets.

It’s the simple things in life that always seem to work the best. 

That straight-forward philosophy worked yet again for Rafael Nadal as he defeated Roger Federer 7-5, 6-3 in the semi-finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London on Sunday.

Nadal’s simple yet ruthlessly efficient strategy of relentlessly attacking Federer’s backhand started way back in 2004 at their first meeting in Miami, which he won 6-3, 6-3, and is still the dominant theme a decade later with Nadal now owning a 22-10 winning head-to-head record. 

Nadal’s nasty lefty serve and heavy forehand are the two primary weapons that are the devastating difference-makers in this elite match-up at the pinnacle of our sport.

Nothing could paint a clearer picture of Nadal’s obsession with breaking down Federer’s backhand than his first serve direction in Sunday’s semi-final.

Nadal made Federer hit a whopping 87% (36/41) backhands from his first serve for the match including 100% (14/14) in the second set. Federer struggled mightily with this tactic, only able to win 19% (7/36) of points beginning with a backhand return from a first serve. On the flip side, Federer won 80% (4/5) when he was able to return Nadal’s first serve with a forehand, illustrating the dramatic difference in success for Federer with the two tactics. 

Nadal was equally as persistent with the tactic on second serves, making Federer hit 76% (10/13) backhands to completely handcuff him to begin the point. Federer won 3/10 starting with a backhand return and 1/3 beginning with a forehand return as Nadal won a very high 69% of points on his second serve for the match. 

Even though Federer knew exactly where it was going he still had serious trouble handling the heavy lefty slice, committing 11 backhand return errors off first serves and two from second serves over two sets.

The problem for Federer in this match-up is that he is always the one having to adjust to Nadal – not the other way around. It must make for a monumental headache trying to figure out how to diffuse the Spaniard’s strategy that never seems to change and always seems to work.

Nadal’s simple yet efficient strategy also lends itself to him getting a forehand as the first shot after the serve and this match was no exception. Nadal hit a “Serve + 1” forehand 71% (27/38) of the time, winning a very high 70% (19/27) of those points. Nadal’s layers of strategy feed on each other and help him constrict the point as it develops until Federer is backed into a corner – the corner deep in the Ad court to be exact. 

Federer got pinned deep in the Ad court again and again by Nadal’s heavy forehand, committing 14 backhand errors for the match (Nadal had 10). Federer loves nothing more than to turn backhands into forehands in the Ad court but Nadal does everything possible to shut this down and remove the oxygen from Federer’s baseline play. In the opening set Federer hit 47 backhands in the Ad court and was only able to run-around 14 backhands and turn them into Ad court forehands which completely suffocates his primary baseline tactics. 

Federer hit 31 backhands in the second set and still only hit 14 run-around forehands – the exact same number as the opening set. Overall Federer hit 78 backhands and 85 forehands for the match which is basically even which is a death sentence for Federer against Nadal. 

Once Nadal has got Federer’s backhand in a choke hold he then develops his cunning secondary tactic of running Federer hard to the deuce court to try and extract Forehand on-the-run errors. Federer made 20 forehand errors for the match, with 12 of them coming standing in the deuce court. 

Federer’s answer to Nadal’s master plan was to limit the amount of baseline rallies in the match. Federer came to the net nine times in the two sets but could only win two of those points. It’s hard for Federer to gain any traction when he does not own the back or the front of the court. He did serve-and-volley seven times, winning five, but it’s not enough to sustain any type of pressure on the Spaniard. 

Novak Djokovic proved in 2011 through the Australian Open in 2012 that he could successfully make a strategy adjustment to dominate Nadal, winning seven straight times. For Federer it’s more complex having to match up his one-handed backhand up against the game’s heaviest forehand but evolution stops for nobody. He is yet to display a successful counter-move to Nadal’s persistent Ad court attack and time is running out to see if Federer can develop the right tools to get the better of his lefty nemesis. One thing is for sure – the world is madly in love with their magnificent rivalry and 2014 can’t come soon enough to see these two giants of the game once again look at each other from opposite sides of the net. 

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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