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Brain Game: Kei’s Game Plan Rattles Rafa

Madrid, Spain

Nishikori © Getty ImagesKei Nishikori used his favourite shot effectively against Rafael Nadal in the Madrid final.

Kei Nishikori stunned the tennis world in the Madrid final building a 6-2, 4-2 lead against the King of Clay in his own backyard before a back injury stopped him in his tracks. Rafael Nadal went on to win the final 2-6, 6-4, 3-0 ret. but the real focus was just how dominant Nishikori was against Nadal on clay in the Spanish capital.

We have grown accustomed to watching Nadal pound opponents in the Ad court on his favourite surface but it was Nishikori who completely owned this directional battle with laser backhands and lethal run-around forehands.

Ad Court Dominance
Nishikori hit six forehand winners building his set and a break lead and every one of them was a run-around forehand standing in the Ad court. What is even more surprising is that all six went back through the Ad court behind Nadal, wrong-footing the Spaniard. Nishikori ran all the way to the Ad court alley to hit three of the winners in a clear indication that he was going to be the one controlling the critical Ad court exchanges – not the World No. 1.

If Nishikori wasn’t hitting a winner in the Ad court battles then there was a good chance he was forcing an error. Nadal’s normally dominant forehand was a non-factor during this period of the match, notching up only two winners and committing 14 errors. Ten of the Spaniard’s 14 errors were all out wide in the Ad court, often times in extreme locations very deep or outside the doubles alley.

Secondary Tactic
Once Nishikori established dominance in the Ad court he also cleverly mixed down the line to Nadal’s backhand with great success. Nadal made eight backhand errors to be down a set and 2-4 and six of them came from a Nishikori groundstroke hit down the line from the Ad court. This strategy is straight out of the Djokovic playbook and identical to the tactics the Serb used to defeat Nadal 6-3, 6-3 in the Miami Masters final at the end of March.

Climbing the Ladder
A key factor of Nishikori’s baseline dominance was his constant rally position up around and inside the baseline. This provided better geometry of the court to attack Nadal, improved depth on his shots, and gave Nadal less time to get prepared. It also allowed Nishikori to deliver a more powerful shot to the other side of the court. With Nishikori serving at 3-2 in the second set, his average forehand speed for the match was 80 mph, while Nadal was nowhere close at only 71mph - highlighting just how dominant Nishikori was in outthinking and outhitting his opponent. Nadal was not able to find a single tactic in the match where he possessed an edge.

Nishikori’s Backhand
Nadal thrives on breaking down an opponent’s backhand but Nishikori’s favourite shot delivered four winners and only seven errors during the opening 14 games. With Nishikori leading a set and up a break 1-0 in the second he had directed 59 percent of his backhands down the line to Nadal’s backhand, often times very deep to the corner, making Nadal have to slice his own backhand to try to stay in the point. Nishikori directed 41 percent cross court with most landing shorter and wider with the intention of pulling Nadal off the court as much as possible.

Serve + 1 Forehand
A key strategy for both players was looking for a forehand as the first shot after the serve to keep control of the point. Nishikori hit a serve then a forehand as the first shot after the serve 90 percent (27/30) of the time, winning 59 percent of those points.  Nadal hit a Serve + 1 forehand 89 percent (24/27) but could only manage to win 46 percent of those points. It is extremely rare to see Nadal not have a winning percentage with his number one serving strategy.

By reaching the final Nishikori became the first Japanese player to break into the Top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings. Coupled with his recent victory in Barcelona, Nishikori is shaping as a real threat to go all the way at Roland Garros in a couple of weeks.

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

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