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Brain Game: Djokovic Breaks Down Nadal Forehand

Miami, U.S.A.

Djokovic© Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic attacked Nadal’s forehand return with both first and second serves.

Novak Djokovic launched a full-blooded attack at Rafael Nadal’s forehand to win the Sony Open Tennis final, executing with near perfection. 

Djokovic won 6-3, 6-3 with a brilliant game plan aimed at breaking down Nadal’s strength by pounding it where it is most vulnerable – returning serve and extremely wide in the Ad court. 

It took Djokovic a few games to settle in as he first had to navigate saving a break point in the opening game of the match and Nadal’s early good form, which saw the Spaniard hit five winners to Djokovic’s one with the score tied at 2-2. 

From then on it was showtime for the Serb as he won 14 of the next 18 points and 21 of 30 to lead 6-3, 1-0 with a break. 

Right from the start of the match Djokovic attacked Nadal’s forehand return with both first and second serves. Overall Nadal hit 22 forehand returns and remarkably only won three of those points. Nadal committed seven return errors off the forehand (four Ad court / three deuce court) as Djokovic stayed ahead in the guessing game of serve location.

The clever tactic had three benefits. Firstly, Nadal’s backhand return motion is compact and easier to block the serve back while the forehand backswing is larger and more likely to be pressured for time - especially on hard courts. Secondly, it was a disruptive, surprise tactic to attack the strength and keep Nadal guessing. Lastly, it was extremely effective to catch Nadal running around his backhand return, particularly on second serves in the Ad court. 

Nadal's Forehand Returns Total Returned Total Points Won
1st Serves Deuce Court 9 1
1st Serves Ad Court 6 1
2nd Serves Deuce Court 1 0
2nd Serves Ad Court 6 1

Djokovic constantly seemed to be ahead in the rallies as Nadal looked a step slower than normal. Nadal committed 18 forehand groundstroke errors to Djokovic’s seven and it was where those errors were made that helps understand the inner workings of the Serb’s master plan. 

Nadal Forehand Errors Deuce Court Ad Court Middle Ad Court Wide
1st Set 1 2 5
2nd Set 1 4 5

Sixteen of the 18 forehand errors from Nadal occurred standing in the Ad court, where Djokovic attacked with his backhand cross court and forehand down the line. Of the 16, 10 occurred very wide around the Ad court alley and sometimes outside it as Djokovic kept yanking Nadal out of his comfort zone. 

The location of Djokovic’s winners also helps paint a clearer picture of how commanding this tactic really was. Djokovic is renowned for his backhand down the line, but every single one of his backhand winners were cross court in the direction of Nadal’s forehand.

Djokovic Winners To The Deuce Court To The Ad Court
Backhand 0 5
Forehand 4 4

Both players won 14 points each in baseline rallies in the opening set, but Djokovic clearly took the honours in the second set, winning 65 per cent (24 to 13) from the back of the court. 

A pivotal game was Nadal serving at 2-3 in the opening set as Djokovic broke for the first time. Djokovic finished at the net with a forehand volley winner on the first point after crushing a second serve return down the line to Nadal’s forehand. At 0-15, Djokovic again went after the forehand, hitting a short angle backhand cross court winner. Nadal won the next point with a good first serve that was unreturned and at 15-30 Djokovic hit a huge forehand down the line, attacking Nadal’s forehand, then backed it up with a cross court winner. At 15-40 Djokovic used the secondary pattern of attacking Nadal’s backhand, which forced an error long for the break. 

Djokovic was also lights out coming to the net, winning seven of eight points to take command of all areas of the court. Leading 3-2, 30-0 in the second set, Djokovic was feeling it so much he nailed an old-school slice backhand approach deep to Nadal’s forehand, which the Spaniard missed down the line. Once Djokovic’s primary patterns were humming, he would mix it up occasionally to Nadal’s backhand to completely confuse him.

Nadal had a very disappointing day serving, only winning 59 per cent of first serves and 46 per cent of second serves. Djokovic constantly began the point returning down the middle with a deep missile to push Nadal back and instantly getting control of both court position and the directional flow of the point. In the first set, Djokovic averaged landing his return 11.4 feet from the baseline against first serves and that improved to only 5.8 feet from the baseline against second serves to really push Nadal back on his heels.  

Djokovic said in his post-match interview that “everything went perfectly for me.” Some days, you can do no wrong. 

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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