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Brain Game: Rafa's New Tactics Fell Novak

Paris, France

Nadal© Getty ImagesRafeal Nadal hit 27 forehand winners to Novak Djokovic's 17 in the Roland Garros final.

Rafael Nadal’s masterful counter-tactic of bombarding Novak Djokovic’s forehand took time to develop but ultimately carried him to a historic ninth Roland Garros title on Sunday.

Nadal won 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 by switching gears from previous matches and relentlessly attacking Djokovic’s forehand, particularly with many more forehands down the line in what was the 42nd meeting between these two giants of the game. Nadal’s forehand was by far the biggest weapon in the final, crushing 27 winners to Djokovic’s 17 as the strategic change in directing traffic away from Djokovic’s stronger backhand delivered more and more baseline control as the final developed.

Nadal’s clever maneuver yielded a staggering 85 per cent (23/27) of his forehand winners directed towards Djokovic’s forehand. Nadal’s primary forehand winner was amazingly redirecting down the line with pin-point accuracy for 13 bruising blows. Nadal preferred to play high and heavy to Djokovic’s backhand, getting the ball up out of his strike zone, but he hit it as hard as he could when attacking the forehand wing.

Nadal Forehand Winners

RN’s Court Position
To ND’s Forehand
To ND’s Backhand
Run Around
In Deuce Court
Ad Court

Things started slowly for Nadal with only four forehand winners in the opening set as Djokovic controlled the flow of play much more, especially with his backhand. Nadal lost serve at 3-4 in the opening set as three big run-around forehands from the Deuce court all missed their mark wide, going cross-court towards Djokovic’s forehand. The big weapon was not yet dialed in.

Overall, Nadal committed 66 per cent (24/36) of his forehand errors for the match towards Djokovic’s forehand, with 18 missing their mark down the line, illustrating just how committed he was to the pattern of play.

Nadal Forehand Errors

RN’s Court Position
To ND’s Forehand
To ND’s Backhand
Run Around
In Deuce Court
Normal Ad Court

Nadal’s first break of serve for the match came at 3-2, Ad Out in the second set, when he hit a forehand return off a second serve out wide in the Ad court alley. He ran all the way to the Deuce court alley to defiantly hit another huge run around forehand at Djokovic’s forehand. Djokovic netted his shot to provide the break, which established the first real momentum shift for Nadal in the match. The Spaniard would get broken back immediately, but the pattern of attacking the Serb’s forehand was really starting to pay dividends as Nadal hit eight of his nine forehand winners for the set to Djokovic’s  forehand wing.

Nadal would break Djokovic again with the Serb serving at 5-6 with two more heavy forehand winners directed at Djokovic’s forehand. When the big moments arrived, Nadal consistently stuck with this pattern. Djokovic only won five points in five games from 5-all in the second set to being down 0-3 in the third in the real turning point of the match.

Djokovic Return Errors
Another major element of the final was the unusual amount of return errors from the player widely thought of as the best returner in the game. Djokovic committed an unusually high 24 return errors (Nadal made 10), including 17 off his normally rock-solid backhand wing. Remarkably, five of these were off second serves, stopping any momentum in its tracks he was desperately trying to build. Nadal directed 80 per cent of his first serves at Djokovic’s backhand return but was close to 50-50 on second serves, hitting a lot of successful jam serves right at the body.

Djokovic Return Stroke

Djokovic Returns  
Winning %
1st Serve Return – Backhand 
1st Serve Return – Forehand
2nd Serve Return – Backhand
2nd Serve Return – Forehand

Nadal’s Returns
Djokovic’s tactics were to mix much more against Nadal to keep him guessing; the Spaniard hit 36 backhand returns and 35 forehand returns off first serves. Nadal’s obsession with hitting forehand returns off second serves helped him hit 70 per cent (29/41) forehand returns where he won a very high 65.5 per cent (19/29), compared to 50 per cent (6/12) off his backhand wing. 

Nadal Serve + 1
Nadal was always looking to crush a forehand as the first shot after the serve, especially to get a quick strike out wide to Djokovic’s forehand. Nadal hit 84 per cent (74/88) first shots after the serve as a forehand to maintain his initial control of the points.

1st Shot After Serve  
Winning %
Serve + 1 Forehand
Serve + 1 Backhand

It took Nadal almost two full sets to sink his teeth into the match, but once he gained conviction in his forehand tactic there was nothing a tiring Djokovic could do to stop it. Nadal now pulls equal with Pete Sampras as second on the Grand Slam title-leaders list with 14 – only three behind Roger Federer, who has 17. This will be one of his sweetest victories at Roland Garros, having to overcome a less than ideal clay court preparation season to once again reign supreme as the King of Clay in Paris.

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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