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Brain Game: 10 Keys To Nadal-Djokovic Final

Paris, France

Djokovic, Nadal© Getty ImagesThe No. 1 spot in the Emirates ATP Rankings will be on the line when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic battle on Sunday.

There will be two matches played when Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal face off in their heavyweight battle in the Roland Garros final – one during the point and another tactical one between the points.

At stake is nothing less than the No. 1 Emirates ATP Ranking. In addition, Novak is looking to complete a career Grand Slam and Rafa is chasing an astonishing ninth Roland Garros crown.

The physical toll will surely be exhausting but it will be the mental contest filled with strategic moves and countermoves that will be the key to determining this year’s champion. 

Tennis is a game of match-ups and Nadal’s wicked lefty patterns work perfectly against just about every player in the world except Djokovic. The evolution of the Serb’s game has been molded over time to defeat all comers but none more than his Spanish nemesis, whom he has defeated the past four times they have played.

This match does not feel like just another match between these two gladiators. It feels like a match for the ages - a defining afternoon for both men and the sport. Following are the key strategies between the two best players in the world that will ultimately decide whose name will be inscribed on the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy. 

Nadal’s Perfect Point
Nadal is always looking to initially construct an Ad court point to win the arm wrestle of control with his lethal forehand against his opponent’s comparatively weaker backhand. It’s really just a cleverly disguised ambush. He knows his opponent will want to redirect the ball down the line to his backhand in the Deuce court and he is already moving to his right before it is hit to turn that backhand into a forehand missile. It’s a masterful chess move to get his opponent to hit the weaker ball he craves to the exact court location from which he dominates. 

Nadal’s Run-Around Forehand
Nothing will determine the outcome more than the total number of forehands Nadal gets to hit while standing in the Deuce court. This is the engine room of the Spaniard’s game where he hits many more winners and makes fewer errors than the traditional Ad court location for lefty forehands. Running around a backhand is an upgrade in weaponry, doubles the target area to include down the line and cross and freezes the opponent with his wide open stance, which robs any anticipation. 

Djokovic’s Perfect Point
Djokovic thrives on standing around the baseline in the Ad court, dictating with his backhand down the line and also short angles cross court. Where Djokovic succeeds so well against Nadal is that he can take his backhand down the line and make Nadal hit backhands instead of forehands in the deuce court while still having the threat of hurting Nadal crosscourt wide. It’s the perfect double whammy. This is a nightmare for Nadal as it neutralises the Spaniard’s favourite patterns, making him respect the entire court. Djokovic tightens the noose by attacking Nadal at the precise location Nadal gets to prey on other opponents. In the Miami final the Serb hit all five of his backhand winners short angled cross court to Nadal’s forehand. 

Don’t Overplay Nadal’s Backhand
Nadal’s sword is his forehand and his shield is his backhand. While Nadal’s backhand is not as potent offensively as Djokovic’s, it’s a defensive rock when called upon. In the 2012 Roland Garros final Djokovic stubbornly overplayed Nadal’s backhand, trying to go through something he should have mixed more against. At 15-15 in the first game of the fourth set they dueled for a 44-shot rally, which was the longest of the tournament. Djokovic made Nadal hit 16 backhands and six forehands, including nine of the last 10 shots as a backhand. Ultimately the Serb was punching himself out of the match as Nadal only made 23 backhand errors to Djokovic’s 37. In the last four games Nadal hit 29 backhands and didn’t commit a single error. Djokovic needs to go to the backhand to open up the forehand wide in the Ad court.

Attack Nadal’s Wide Forehand
In the 2012 Roland Garros final Djokovic had a purple patch, winning eight straight games in 48 minutes from 0-2 in the third set to 2-0 in the fourth set by attacking Nadal’s forehand in the Ad court, where he committed 15 errors. In the Miami final he successfully attacked Nadal’s forehand in the Ad court, where the Spaniard committed 16 of 18 forehand errors. Of the 16, 10 were made very wide around the Ad court alley and sometimes outside it.

Finish With A Forehand
Djokovic needs to get the mix right to set up points with his backhand, but finish with his bigger forehand. When Djokovic defeated Nadal in Rome last month the Serb crushed 46 winners to Nadal’s 15, with 18 coming from the forehand wing. That was as big as Djokovic has ever hit his forehand.

Short Points Favour Djokovic
Nadal likes to grind and slowly suffocate his opponents so Djokovic will be looking to counter by keeping the points short to eliminate Nadal’s constricting tactic. In Rome, Djokovic won almost double (49 to 25) the points that didn’t reach five shots, which made up 45 percent (74/165) of total points. 

Nadal Serving 
Should Nadal stay away from Djokovic’s amazing backhand return? In the 2012 Monte Carlo Rolex Masters final Nadal defeated Djokovic 6-3, 6-1, directing all 25 first serves to Djokovic’s forehand. Djokovic didn’t hit a single backhand return off a first serve for the match. Since Djokovic has the world’s best backhand return, Nadal should definitely look back to this match for inspiration.

Djokovic Serving
Djokovic will look to pepper Nadal’s backhand return wide in the Deuce court and sometimes sneak in for a surprise serve and volley. In the Miami final earlier this year, Djokovic attacked Nadal’s forehand return with both first and second serves. Overall, Nadal hit 22 forehand returns and only won three of those points, committing seven return errors off the forehand (four Ad court / three Deuce court) as Djokovic won the guessing game of serve location. 

Djokovic Short Ball Hunting
Djokovic has been lights out coming to the net against Nadal in recent matches and should approach as much as possible again on Sunday. In their past two meetings the Serb won 66 percent (18/27) in Rome and 87 percent (7/8) in Miami with the primary focus of approaching to the backhand. Djokovic must limit approaching to the forehand as Nadal’s heavy, whipping spin creates impossible angles out of thin air. 

Prediction: Djokovic in 4 sets
In many ways Nadal wins Roland Garros year after year by building his form and confidence in the critical lead-up events in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. That preparation was shaken this year with losses to Ferrer, Almagro, Djokovic and barely squeaking by Kei Nishikori who injured his back while leading 6-2, 4-2 in Madrid. Combine that with the fact that Djokovic is playing outstanding tennis in Paris, and that he desperately wants this title to return to World No. 1 and complete a career Grand Slam, and I give him the edge in four sets.

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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