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Brain Game: Rafa's Brilliance On Backhand Return

Wimbledon, Great Britain

Nadal© AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal put back in play 76 per cent (61/80) of all points starting with a backhand return against Mikhail Kukushkin.

Brain Game author Craig O’Shannessy breaks down the big matches each day during The Championships.

One of the most under-the-radar match-ups on a tennis court is a backhand return against a second serve.

World No. 1 and two-time former titlist Rafael Nadal turned the tide of his third round match by taking control of this key strategy to defeat Mikhail Kukushkin 6-7(4), 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 to advance Saturday at The Championships.

Nadal led 2-1 in the second set and hadn’t yet sniffed a break point for the match. At 40/15, Kukushkin hit his second serve to Nadal’s backhand return that ultimately signalled the beginning of the end for the Kazakhstani.

Nadal stepped inside the baseline and ripped it cross court, immediately forcing a forehand error. At 40/30, Nadal hit a lucky backhand return winner down the line, this time off a first serve, to drag the game back to Deuce. A couple of points later Nadal hit another backhand return winner down the line in the Ad court off a second serve to keep the game alive.

In the final two points of this pivotal game, Nadal hit a deep backhand return off a second serve at Deuce hard down the middle that set up a powerful run-around forehand to finally get to break point at Ad Out.

The Spaniard then crushed a second serve backhand return down the line to immediately force a forehand error and finally break Kukushkin for the first time in the match. From this point on, it was lights out for Kukushkin as he would only win two more games for the entire match.

Kukushkin targeted Nadal’s backhand with his second serve in the Deuce court, hitting 11 out wide, 13 jamming the backhand at the body and only three down the middle to the forehand. Nadal typically loves to run around second serves and smack forehand returns, but the slick grass courts rob him of the necessary time to execute it, so he has adjusted his game by shortening his backhand backswing and stepping inside the baseline a lot more to find the advantage.

The Ad Court offered similar targets with 12 second serves directed down the middle to Nadal’s backhand return, eight jamming at the body and only four mixed out wide to the forehand. Kukushkin only won 35 per cent (18/52) of his second serve points for the match as Nadal’s improved backhand return dominated this micro-battle. Nadal put back in play 76 per cent (61/80) of all points starting with a backhand return which was slightly higher than the 72 per cent (39/54) from the forehand side. This is where the genius of Nadal lies - adding layers of pressure, which silently build throughout the match.

Nadal only yielded 13 forced errors off the backhand return (five Deuce court/eight Ad court) in four sets, but amazingly was only credited with three backhand return unforced errors for the match – all in the Deuce Court. He has never been one to beat himself.

Nadal’s returns against second serves have gradually improved this year at The Championships, winning 50 per cent in the opening round against Martin Klizan, 46 per cent against Lukas Rosol and 65 per cent against Kukushkin. He is also getting better from the baseline, winning 51 per cent, then 54 per cent and finally 59 per cent as he has progressed through the first three rounds.

Nadal will rely heavily on his backhand return in his next match against Australian Nick Kyrgios who leads the tournament for aces on 76.

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FedererFederer Unbreakable

Roger Federer is one of only three players left in the draw that has not lost serve in the opening three rounds. He saved both break points Saturday in the third set to knock Santiago Giraldo out of the tournament with a decisive 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 to move through to the fourth round against Tommy Robredo. A massive difference in the match was simply the ability to get the serve back in play.

Federer made an extremely high 68 per cent of first serves, including 79 per cent (23/29) in the opening set, resulting in Giraldo not getting back 54 per cent (39/72) of his returns into the court. By contrast, Federer only missed 19 per cent (15/81) of his returns, including four in the opening set, five in the second and six in the third. This applied massive pressure for Giraldo, who didn’t hit an ace for the match, receiving almost no free points against the seven-time former Wimbledon champion.

Federer had a massive 82-45 advantage when points were finished in the first four shots as he moved extremely well around the court, hunting the short ball looking to finish the point before it really got started. Only six points out of 158 lasted at least nine shots, with Giraldo winning five of them. Federer was always looking to come forward; winning 82 per cent (14/17) of his serve and volley points and 65 per cent (15/23) of approach points. He is successfully fine-tuning his aggressive games style for a shot at an unprecedented eighth title here at The Championships.

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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