Brain Game: Novak Masters Tennis’ Most Important Equation
Brain Game shows why Novak Djokovic was a comprehensive winner in Indian Wells despite hitting fewer winners in the final than Milos Raonic
It’s not how many winners you hit. It’s how many errors you don’t make.
Novak Djokovic defeated Milos Raonic 6-2, 6-0 to win a record fifth BNP Paribas Open title by getting on the right side of the most important equation in our sport. Raonic won only two of the 14 games played, but amazingly hit more winners, 16-15.
That may seem like an anomaly, but it’s actually quite common for the match loser to accumulate more winners. In general, around 70 per cent of all points on the ATP World Tour end in errors and around 30 per cent end in winners.
Experience has taught the elite players to focus on dominating the larger pool of points and to generally care very little about hitting more winners than their opponents. In this final, there were 31 winners hit out of 101 points, producing a very typical ratio of 69 per cent errors and 31 per cent winners.
The final score may have looked abnormal, but the mix of winners and errors was extremely typical of a pro tour encounter. Djokovic has built a spectacular career dominating the much larger 70 per cent pool of points, which makes him for a very tough match-up for the free-hitting Canadian.
Raonic was clearly miss-firing with his ultra-aggressive game style and could not yield a big enough advantage out of the smaller 30 per cent pool of winners to trouble the World No. 1. Raonic left the court after the first set to have an injury attended to, and he was never able to sustain any kind of momentum to pressure the Super Serb.
2nd Serve Domination
In the opening set, Raonic only won 3/16 second serve points, and 0/14 in the second set. That’s a horror story for one of the biggest servers in the game.
In set one, Djokovic targeted 71 per cent (10/14) of his second-serve returns right down the middle third of the court, with the remaining four all wide in the ad court aimed at Raonic’s less potent backhand wing.
Deep returns to the middle of the court was the classic Andre Agassi strategy, giving the returner a big target to land a powerful return and providing no angle for the server.
Coming into the Indian Wells final, Raonic was winning 54 per cent of his second-serve points in his five preceding matches. He won 58 per cent in all of 2015 and had won 55 per cent so far this year. But against Djokovic, he managed to win 10 per cent (3/30).
With Raonic serving at 0-4 deuce in the second set, he had only 29 per cent of his serves unreturned, which was lower than Djokovic at 31 per cent. Those numbers would have seemed impossible to consider before the match.
Djokovic, as you would expect, performed admirably in this key strategic area, winning 67 per cent (8/12) of his second serve points, including hitting only four second serves in the entire second set and winning half of those points.
Once the point extended past a serve and return, Djokovic won a staggering 80 per cent (41/51) of the baseline rallies. Djokovic blended amazing defense with suffocating court position, extending the 6’5” Canadian out to the edges of the court.
Raonic was pressing hard against the World No. 1, especially off the forehand wing, where he committed 18 unforced errors to the Serb’s one. Raonic was credited with 27 unforced errors for the match to Djokovic’s four. Those are the numbers that form the bull's-eye of who won and why.
Ultimately it does not matter if Djokovic loses the battle of hitting winners by one (15-16) if he can get his opponent to miss the court as much as Raonic did.
Overall, 62 per cent of points ended in the first four shots, 31 per cent in the five-to-nine shot range, and only seven per cent were extended past nine shots, with Djokovic having a healthy winning percentage in all three.
Victories like this one send a chill through the rest of the tour as opponents desperately search for answers to get the upper hand against the rampaging Serb.