Brain Game: Federer Thwarts Nadal's Serve +1 Plan
Never compromise what makes you great.
Roger Federer defeated Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-4 in a close Miami Open presented by Itau final, with Federer's forehand serving as the difference maker. Nadal's forehand, on the other hand, failed to have its usual impact in the match, primarily because he was not as committed to hitting it as much as he normally is – especially as the first shot after the serve.
With Federer winning their past three matches, it's understandable that Nadal was looking for variations and creases to his normal strategy. It’s smart to look for counter moves, offer different looks and to try to rattle the cage in Federer's mind. But ultimately, Nadal adjusted too far and strategically lost his way. His forehand got lost in the shuffle.
Nadal normally hits a forehand around 80 per cent of the time after his serve and wins approximately 65 per cent of those points. It's without question the engine room.
But in this final, Nadal hit forehands as his first shot after the serve exactly 50 per cent (22/44) of the time, drastically down from his career average. It may be as low as he has ever been in this strategic area on such a big stage.
Nadal Serve +1
• Serve +1 forehands = 50% (22/44)
• Serve +1 forehand win percentage = 55% (12/22)
• Serve +1 backhand win percentage = 41% (9/22)
As you would expect, Nadal won a higher percentage of Serve +1 forehands (55 per cent to 41 per cent). The last time Nadal defeated Federer was in the semi-final of the 2014 Australian Open. In that match, Nadal hit 73 per cent (45/62) Serve +1 forehands, winning a dominant 69 per cent (31/45) of those points. It’s that important, and then some.
Nadal is normally locked onto hitting Serve +1 forehands. For example, when he defeated Stan Wawrinka 6-3, 6-2 in the 2015 ATP Finals, Nadal hit a Serve +1 forehand 89 per cent of the time (33/37).
The Spaniard normally loves to blast forehands through Federer's backhand. But the 2017 version of Federer's backhand is like nothing Nadal has ever seen, and in the process of adjusting to it, other parts of Nadal's game have suffered. Federer, on the other hand, dictated throughout the Miami final with his Serve +1 strategy, hitting a forehand after the serve 82 per cent of the time.
Federer Serve +1
• Serve +1 forehands = 82% (32/39)
• Serve + 1 forehand win percentage = 63% (20/32)
• Serve +1 backhand win percentage = 71% (5/7)
Federer got to play in his comfort zone, racking up 19 forehand winners to Nadal's eight.
Nadal also went with secondary serve patterns much more than usual. It used to feel like Nadal directed 100 per cent of his serves at Federer's backhand, but in this match Federer actually hit more forehand returns (34) than backhands (26).
Of the 26 backhand returns Federer hit, he came over 24 of them, only slicing two because of the quality of Nadal's delivery. Federer's backhand return found Nadal's Serve +1 backhand eight times, while 14 went to the forehand, and four were return errors. Federer's new and improved backhand return is clearly wrecking havoc with Nadal's Serve +1 forehand intentions.
Federer stuck with his typical serve patterns, making Nadal hit 68 per cent (38/56) backhand returns for the match. In the deuce court, Nadal typically serves down the middle against Federer, but the Spaniard landed only five serves there, winning two of those points. By comparison, Nadal made 12 first serves out wide to Federer's forehand, winning just 50 per cent (6/12).
In the ad court, Nadal won a healthy 80 per cent (8/10) of his first serves out wide. The left-hander won 53 per cent (9/17) serving at the body in the deuce court and 67 per cent (8/12) in the ad court.
With Nadal serving at 3-4, 30/40 in the second set, with the match squarely on the line, he hit an 89 mph second serve at Federer's backhand. The Swiss stepped into the court and hit a backhand return down the line to Nadal's backhand. Nadal missed four Serve +1 backhands for the match, including this one, and Federer would serve the match out in the following game.
Nadal will ultimately look back at the four break points he didn't convert in the opening set as key moments that could have led to victory. One thing is for certain. Nadal must get back to doing what makes him so great against Federer. Nadal's forehand has more to do with the lopsided 23-14 scoreline he owns in their FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry than basically everything else combined.