Brain Game: Nadal Wins Backhand Battle
You can't run through a brick wall...
Rafael Nadal defeated Andy Murray 6-4, 6-1 in their second round-robin match at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals on Wednesday, with Murray unsuccessfully trying to dismantle the indefatigable Nadal's backhand.
The Spaniard typically likes to hit as many forehands as possible, but this match-up clearly showed that the Nadal backhand currently has nothing to fear from the Murray forehand.
Nadal hit 55 per cent backhands and 45 per cent forehands for the match, which is extremely uncharacteristic from the former World No. 1.
The reason was simple - Murray’s cross-court forehand through the deuce court lacked the depth, power, or spin to make Nadal uncomfortable from his backhand wing.
Nadal hit 70 per cent of his backhands cross court to Murray’s passive forehand, which accumulated only three winners, while committing 12 unforced errors in this primary baseline pattern of play.
Nadal’s backhand felt little pressure from Murray’s forehand, as the Spaniard was quite happy to exchange shots through the deuce court before finding the right ball to upgrade with a run-around forehand.
Both players averaged 74 miles per hour (mph) off their forehand side, with Murray's backhand averaging 69 mph to Nadal’s 67 mph.
The deuce court sparring extracted only five backhand unforced errors from Nadal, as Murray’s cross-court forehand continuously landed without any venom around the service line.
The best way to understand the difference between the two groundstrokes is that the forehand behaves like an offensive “sword”, while the backhand takes on the role of the defensive “shield”.
In this match, Murray’s sword did very little to bother Nadal’s shield.
Murray hit 62 per cent forehands from the back of the court, and hit 74 per cent of them cross court, but the winner to error ratio played out much more in the Nadal’s favor.
It’s extremely rare that you will see Nadal accept so many backhands. In his opening round match against Stan Wawrinka, Nadal hit 59 per cent forehands, and only 41 per cent backhands from the back of the court.
Against Murray, Nadal dominated short rallies of 0-4 shots (26-16), lost the mid-length rallies of 5-9 shots (19-22), but completely dominated the longer rallies (16-5).
Nadal Serving Patterns
A winning adjustment Nadal made with his serve location was to target the body a lot more in the Ad court than we are accustomed to see.
In the Ad court, Nadal served 65 per cent of all serves at Murray’s body, seeking a jam forehand slice return, boomeranging the return right back down the middle of the court.
Nadal only hit 23 per cent down the middle T in the Ad court, and 12 per cent (two first serves / one second serve) slicing out wide, where he normally loves to hit most Ad court serves.
In the deuce court, Nadal stuck his to his favourite pattern of slicing down the middle to the right-hander’s backhand, hitting 44 per cent of his serves there, 37 per cent at the body, and successfully surprising 19 per cent out wide to Murray’s forehand return.
Murray’s 2nd Serves
Murray amazingly only won one of 10 second serves in the second set, and a lowly 34 per cent (10/29) for the entire match. In set two, Murray directed nine second serves to Nadal’s dominant forehand side, and four to the backhand. Those are confusing tactics that didn’t simply didn’t pay off.
Murray’s slowest second serve was a pedestrian 82 mph - much slower than the 103 mph forehand groundstroke Novak Djokovic struck against Roger Federer the previous evening.
Murray’s fastest second serve was 104 mph, and he averaged 89 mph, which is a gift to Nadal, It gives the Spaniard time to run around a second serve directed to his backhand, and upgrade to a stronger forehand return.
Nadal has now defeated Wawrinka and Murray in straight sets, making both opponents tap out mentally and emotionally in the second set.
Nadal has been missing from the top of the leaderboard in 2015, but his form here in the first two matches suggests he will be a force to be reckoned with in 2016.
Nadal’s energy, confidence, and patterns of play are rapidly returning to a level that can once again be the benchmark at the elite level of our sport.