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Brain Game: Djokovic Forces Federer Back

Indian Wells, U.S.A.

Djokovic© Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic forced Roger Federer back as he turned the match around against the Swiss.

Novak Djokovic’s thrilling victory over Roger Federer in the final of the BNP Paribas Open Sunday afternoon focused on the key strategy of keeping the Swiss star back behind the baseline as much as possible as the match unfolded.

Djokovic won 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(3) and nothing contributed more to his narrow victory than his ability to turn the match into a grinding backcourt battle after Federer had attacked at will in the opening set. 

Djokovic won only one more point than Federer (99 to 98) for the match and it wasn’t until he broke serve for the first time to go ahead 5-3 in the second set that the Serb really was able to sink his teeth into the match. Federer had remarkably held serve 33 straight times in the tournament until then. 

Federer came out hot and swarmed the net early in the match, racing to a 3-0 and 4-1 lead before winning the opening set 6-3 without facing a break point on serve. It was vintage Federer, hitting 12 crushing winners including four forehand and two backhand winners and he attacked the net at every opportunity. An aggressive chip and charge backhand return off a second serve at deuce in the second game led to the first break of serve for the match for the Swiss maestro. 

But everything from serving and volleying, approaching and playing right on the baseline became less prolific as the match progressed, as Djokovic slowly but surely improved with hitting deeper, making more first serves and extending rallies which suited his grinding mentality from the baseline.

Court position is something that is controlled by both players - the determination of Federer to move forward, even an inch, and also the depth of shot that Djokovic was presenting him with.  In the opening set, Djokovic was only able to get 24 per cent of his groundstrokes to land closer to the baseline than the service line, which let Federer successfully hunt the short ball. But as Djokovic slowly but surely improved his strategy and execution, he was able to increase his depth to 35 per cent of shots landing closer to the baseline in the second set. This significantly slowed the Federer blitz down. 

Djokovic’s depth definitely played a factor in keeping Federer from getting to the net as the match progressed.
Federer Attacking the Net (approaching + serve and volley).

Sets Attacking The Net Won Average Per Game
Set 1 13 6 1.4 times/game
Set 2 6 3 0.66 times/game
Set 3 12 7 0.92 times/game

(note – 3rd set tiebreaker counted as one game). 

The ability to keep Federer off the net in the second set, with less than half the approaches he achieved in the first set, was an important strategy for Djokovic to get back in the match. To keep him back around 65 per cent as much in the third set as he averaged per game in the first set was another key factor in such a tight finish.

Baseline Points 
Federer’s efficiency at the baseline also declined as Djokovic figured out how to attack Federer deep to his backhand corner (20 backhand errors) and also run him hard wide in the deuce court attacking his forehand (29 forehand errors). 

Baseline Points (89) – Points ending with both players at the baseline.

Baseline Points Won Djokovic Won Point Federer Won Point
Set 1 7 10
Set 2 17 13
Set 3 23 19
Total 47 42

Climbing The Ladder
Hawk-Eye visualisation confirmed that the more Federer stays up around and inside the baseline, the better chance he has of winning the point. When the pair last played in semi-finals of Dubai less than a month ago, Federer lost the opening set with relatively poor court position – making contact with the ball 80 per cent behind the baseline and 20 per cent inside. But in the next two sets that he won he moved forward considerably and averaged 67 per cent behind the baseline and 33 per cent inside. 

In the first set of the Indian Wells final yesterday, Federer had his most aggressive set of all, making contact 62 per cent behind the baseline and 38 per cent inside. But the second set and up to around half way through the third saw Djokovic  pushing him back again, forcing the Swiss to hit 73 per cent behind the baseline and only 27 per cent inside. 

Djokovic’s ability to arm-wrestle how the points are constructed to favour his style of play was the key element in deciding which of these two titans of the game would ultimately triumph in such a prestigious event.

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

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