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Nadal wins his 14th Roland Garros title: first of all 'lol', quick analysis, point length, baseline patterns, backhands
Nadal d Ruud: 6-3, 6-3, 6-0
Quick bit of analysis today because nothing particularly unexpected happened. In fact you could probably read a previous piece of analysis I wrote about a Nadal vs Tsonga match and it would broadly apply to this one.
Simply and rather predictably, Ruud’s backhand got exploited relentlessly by Nadal.
Nadal served almost exclusively into the Ruud backhand:
Nadal aimed consistently into the Ruud backhand, from both his own backhand (down the line) and his forehand (cross court):
Ruud then touched on this post-match:
It was tough for me to really know where I should play the ball because from both sides he has -- many people have said that he kind of has two forehands because his backhand is also strong, even though it's maybe a little bit weaker. On the forehand he plays with a little bit of spin and kind of feels like you're playing a right-handed forehand. I didn't know exactly where to play there in the end and he made me run around the court too much. When you are playing defensive against Rafa on clay, he will eat you alive.
Ruud needed to play forehands to set up points on his terms. Nadal didn’t. Rafa could win points outright with his serve and forehand as usual, but more importantly he could set up the way he wanted to play points with either forehand or backhand. If Ruud could play a forehand early in the point he was in decent shape, but if Ruud had to play backhands early in the point he was normally losing. For Nadal it didn’t matter, he could play backhands up the line into the Ruud backhand and then profit from attackable balls, or he could trade cross court with his forehand into the Ruud backhand until he coaxed the right opportunity. Just about every baseline pattern was a winning one for Nadal. Ruud’s slice, which had helped him escape some similar backhand bullying in previous rounds, also happens to be Nadal’s favourite shot to deal with, so no relief there either.
The problem for Ruud is that the way he hits his backhand makes it very difficult for him to step in and take backhands aggressively on the rise. He’s much more comfortable moving deeper to take the ball as it’s dropping and then hitting a high net clearance, high spin backhand (Ruud has the highest double handed backhand spin rate and net clearance on tour). Nadal has no issue dealing with high spin, high net clearance backhands (both Zverev and Djokovic’s ability to take the ball early and offensively from their backhand sides produced tougher matchups in this regard). And as a result Ruud was often hitting backhand returns from all the way back here, creating disadvantaged point patterns from the start of each point:
And like so many other players with weaker backhand wings against Nadal, running around that backhand to hit the forehand strength merely opens up court space for Nadal to hit into:
This is also why more of Nadal’s winners (both deep and drop shots) actually went into Ruud’s forehand side, thanks to Rafa opening up court space after peppering the Ruud backhand:
All of this meant that not only did Ruud’s backhand get exploited by Nadal, but his forehand strength also couldn’t shine while it was trying to work out ways to compensate. This is really the age old question of how do strength-specific, less complete players beat Nadal or Djokovic? Because both Rafa and Novak exploit weakness like no one else and both initiate these cascading sets of problems for their opponents where they get locked in strategic dead ends. Not only allowing Nadal/Djokovic to play better but also causing their opponents to play worse, opening up this perceived gulf that doesn’t often materialise in other matchups between elite players.
The manifestation of this backhand matchup problem for Ruud was that in the short points, especially when Ruud was able to hit a big serve and a big forehand, the two players were pretty much even. But when a rally started, Nadal had hundreds of ways to construct points in his favour while the odds got worse and worse for Ruud the longer the point went on:
Related reading, the ‘First Four Shots Meme’.
Ruud also hit 29 aces in his last two matches combined. He hit none against Nadal, the best returner on clay. One of Ruud’s favourite serves, the kicker out wide on the AD side, also goes straight into Nadal’s forehand and usually initiates another cross court trade into Ruud’s backhand. A nightmare matchup.
Nadal becomes just the third Open Era male player to beat four Top 10 players on the way to winning a Slam title (Wilander in 1982 and Federer in 2017 the other two). He also equals Sampras’ total Slam count at just one tournament… Nadal has as many Slams off clay as Agassi does in total (8) and as many on clay as Sampras does in total (14). Lol… lmao.
I’m going to say the same thing I’ve been saying for a while now about the Big 3 and winning Slams. It's not a fair fight & mostly never has been for the vast majority of challengers against Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. From ‘The Big 3 Moat’ a few months ago:
And while every player builds this resume of experience at the elite level, the Big 3 have that added advantage of weathering all of those scenarios against fellow superhumans — each other. If you train relentlessly against a superhuman AI in chess and then drop down to human opponents, you’ll probably start winning. The same goes for Federer, Nadal, Djokovic. They competed constantly against the peak of tennis competition for the better part of two decades. Meeting anyone else is like dropping back down into the more forgiving, human arena5.
Nadal and his Big 3 mates have essentially been training at 10x gravity for much of the past two decades. And those earned competitive edges, even in their mid 30’s, are still too large (in the case of Rafa/Novak for now, at least while Nadal’s foot holds up).
Ruud had a great tournament and deserved his first Slam final. But in the end he, like so many of his peers, bumped up against one of those pesky superhumans again.
On to the grass!
See you on Thursday.
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