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Brain Game: How Novak Tamed Rafa

Rome, Italy

Djokovic© Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic won 66 per cent (18/27) of all points when he came forward to the net.

Novak Djokovic has evolved once again.

Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final of Internazionali BNL d'Italia in a dominant display, hitting more than three times the winners in owning the baseline against the King of Clay.

Djokovic’s brilliant backhand typically steals the show but this time his forehand was the preeminent shot that was most responsible for the thrilling victory.

Djokovic crushed 46 winners to only 15 for Nadal, with 22 of those coming from the improved Djokovic forehand wing. The Serb hit it harder and flatter than we are used to seeing from him in a clear adaptation of strategy to keep points shorter, which helped win the battle of court position and gain the initial advantage over the eventual arm wrestle of baseline control.

Djokovic unloaded with his forehand from all over the court, hitting equally nine groundstroke winners from the deuce and ad courts. The other four forehand winners were all returns that shared the same subtle strategy element – directed to Nadal’s forehand. With Nadal expecting Djokovic to return to his backhand, Djokovic hit two forehand return winners from both the deuce and ad courts in a smart surprise strategy that caught Nadal backing away towards the deuce court. Nadal is always looking to initially step to his right to hit a forehand with the first shot after the serve, so this clever strategy worked perfectly for the Serb.

Baseline Domination
We are not used to seeing anyone dominate the baseline on clay against Nadal but Djokovic owned this key battleground in the last two sets. Nadal edged Djokovic 19-16 in the opening set in baseline play but Djokovic won 19-15 in the second set and started the third set with a stunning 8-0 run from the back of the court, including winning 13 of 14 points to end the second set and start the third. Djokovic also started the second set strongly, winning 11 of the opening 13 points. It was a match of momentum swings and Djokovic was ultimately more focused and clearer with his game plan.

Nadal Second Serves
Another key battleground that the Serb won was Nadal’s second serve points. The Spaniard only managed to win 43 per cent for the match, which has a snowball effect of pressure on the rest of his game. Nadal protected his second serve well in the opening set, winning 75 per cent (6/8) of those points but Djokovic climbed all over it for the rest of the match as Nadal only won 28 per cent (2/7) in the second set and only 25 per cent (2/8) in the deciding set. Djokovic was only able to get one second return to land closer to the baseline than the service line in the opening set but hit three very deep 2nd serve returns in the second set to establish immediate control as the returner.

First Strike Strategy
Djokovic attacked Nadal early and often, which stopped Nadal finding rhythm and gaining time to develop control from the back of the court. In a very un-clay like statistic, 45 per cent (74/165) of total points didn’t reach five shots, which suited Djokovic just fine against Nadal’s grinding game style. Djokovic won almost double (49 to 25) the amount of short points as he served better, was more aggressive with his returns and was always prowling the baseline looking to come forward. He artificially turned a potential grinding clay court duel into a battle where these statistics are typically seen on a faster hard court. Nadal marginally got the better of the mid-length rallies, winning 34 points to 25 points that lasted between five and nine shots but Djokovic again asserted his superiority once the point got beyond nine shots, winning 19 points to 14. That’s a very troublesome stat for Nadal that eats away at the heart of his grinding mentality and his aura of invincibility on clay.

Finishing at the Net
Djokovic was always hunting the short ball and trying to manufacture a rally where at least one of the two players finished the point at the net. Djokovic won 66 per cent (18/27) of all points when he came forward to the net, never letting Nadal find his baseline rhythm. The Serb also hit nine drop shots to drag Nadal out of his trench deep behind the baseline, winning five of those points. The drop shots had the added effect of keeping Nadal off balance, guessing as to whether Djokovic would attack with his missile-like forehand or drag him to the net out of his comfort zone. Nadal was being yanked all over the court.

This was an important match for Djokovic to explore what tactics currently work best against Nadal on clay and will no doubt give him supreme confidence heading into Roland Garros in a week’s time.

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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