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Djokovic Foils The Forehands
Analysis of the Nadal vs Djokovic semi-final & the Djokovic vs Tsitsipas final
The Nadal Djokovic semi-final, late on Friday night, produced one of the best single sets of tennis in many years. I highly recommend you watch a replay of the third set if you haven’t already. There are moments in that set which could have easily gone either way, and that juncture of the match (and arguably the match as a whole based on those key moments) was balanced on a knife edge. Frankly Djokovic was the better player for set two, half of set three, and the nearly the whole of set four. That Nadal made the match as close as he did (he had a break point for a two sets to one lead on a Djokovic 2nd serve in set three), felt like a bit of a miracle.
I want to focus on a few macro things Djokovic did well overall, that he hadn’t been able to do in the last 5-6 years of this rivalry on clay.
Nadal’s historic short point dominance
Nadal has built much of his clay empire on his short point dominance via his forehand.
Here’s is their clay rivalry, up until this years Roland Garros, broken down by shot length, server and winner (26 match sample):
And here is their clay rivalry at Roland Garros specifically up until this year (7 matches):
As you can see, Nadal has historically dominated the short points on serve (wins 72-74% compared to Novak’s 65-67%), and wins far more of the short points on return than Novak does (33-35% vs Novak’s 26-28%). This is thanks partially to Rafa’s devastating serve+1 forehand and return+1 forehand performances. But you’ll notice that if Djokovic can push the points into the longer categories, things start to look a little rosier for him, especially later in their careers (Nadal was tireless in the longer points in his physical prime, not so much these days). Good examples of this are their two most recent meetings on clay prior to this semi final, both of which Nadal won.
Roland Garros 2020:
0-4 shots: Nadal 53, Djokovic 25
5-8 shots: Nadal 26, Djokovic 31
9+ shots: Nadal 27, Djokovic 21
Nadal dominating shots under 5 shots. Djokovic & Nadal dead even on points over 5 shots.
0-4 shots: Nadal 50, Djokovic 36
5-8 shots: Nadal 39, Djokovic 38
9+ shots: Nadal 5, Djokovic 20
Nadal still with a comprehensive lead in points under 5 shots. Djokovic leading in points over 5 shots.
At worst, Djokovic is neck and neck with Nadal if the point goes longer. At best, he’s dominant if the point goes longer.
The simple matchplay manifestation of this is that if Nadal can finish plenty of points early, especially with his forehand, and not get drawn into too many baseline exchanges, he usually wins this matchup on clay. This is something he has been able to do consistently for the past 5 years. But a combination of world class Djokovic returning, and much slower than usual night-time conditions, blunted Nadal’s first few shots of each point on Friday (Nadal actually handily won the short point battle in set one, by nearly 2 to 1, while it was still daytime-ish conditions):
0-4 shots: Nadal 57, Djokovic 60
5-8 shots: Nadal 39, Djokovic 53
9+ shots: Nadal 28, Djokovic 29
Djokovic and Nadal very even on short points but Djokovic dominating the medium length points. Nadal’s short point edge was suddenly gone, and Novak’s medium to long point performance solid, if not better, than ever.
As soon as Novak got his teeth into a baseline rally, he’d start going to work with the trusty baseline strategy which has been a large part of his success against Nadal on this surface before.
Djokovic’s short angle forehand cross court
Djokovic, in this matchup, has almost always used his spinny cross court forehand to try and force Nadal to come up with backhands in, or even outside, the tramlines. And because more rallies than usual reached the 5-8 shot category for parts of Friday’s match, Djokovic simply had more chances to hit that cross court forehand and try to exploit Nadal’s backhand.
And it worked, non-stop.
Djokovic used this play relentlessly all match long, locking Nadal in backhand jail and waiting for the right ball to attack. Whatever Nadal replied with off his backhand, Novak would either hit big into the open court if the shot was on, or just drill it back to the backhand to coax the right ball to attack. His patience in this regard was stunning, and it gave the world No.1 significant court position advantage with Nadal always having to retreat back further to anticipate the next shot. This strategy was effective both because it gave Djokovic a steady stream of attackable balls and space to hit into, but even more so because it forced Nadal into hitting more backhands than forehands, especially in crucial moments. As Nadal was forced to play more and more of these points with gruelling lateral movement, fatigue became more of a factor. There was plenty of discussion at the time about Nadal not looking his best physically, but much of that had to do with him having to play more of those tougher points than he’d usually have to against Djokovic on clay.
Nadal hit more groundstroke backhands than forehands in Friday’s semi-final. This is the only time in their clay rivalry that this has happened.
TL;DR summary: Djokovic erased Nadal’s short point edge thanks to some stellar returning and good 1st serves of his own (especially in set four), as well as a slightly worse than usual 2nd serve return performance from Nadal. Once Novak had burrowed his way past the first few shots of the point, he successfully and mercilessly exploited the Nadal backhand. Nadal’s early point aggression also suffered due to a slightly below average serving performance (Nadal finished the tournament with 28 double faults, 8 in this match, second only to serial double faulter Zverev), slower night time conditions hurting the efficacy of his forehands, and the aforementioned near-flawless execution of strategy by Djokovic bringing on some general fatigue.
Nadal's career avg (vs Novak) 1st serve win % on clay: 65%
Nadal’s 1st serve win % on Friday: 59%
Nadal’s career avg (vs Novak) 2nd serve win % on clay: 51%
Nadal’s 2nd serve win % on Friday: 40%
Nadal will not want to play more of this matchup in night conditions in Paris. But to increase his future chances of only meeting Djokovic in daytime finals, rather than night-time semi’s, he’ll have to get the No.1 or No.2 seed back. This will be increasingly difficult as a 35+ year old.
A stunning performance from Novak.
There were a few interesting tactical things and shifts that happened in this match, but perhaps the biggest factor in Djokovic’s win from two sets to love down, was experience. First the tactical.
Sets 1 & 2 a different story to 3, 4 & 5
For the first two sets, Tsitsipas won the short point battle, finding his forehand early in the rally and winning the cross court forehand battle against Novak. Set one was high quality and very tightly contested, and set 2 was a case of Djokovic going awol. But after a tough Tsitsipas service game at 1*-2 in the third, in which the Greek saved but then lost break points, the match never felt the same again. Djokovic broke Tsitsipas early in each of the final three sets, and didn’t look back.
Djokovic finds the Tsitsipas backhand as the match goes on
Djokovic stuck with a fairly even split on groundstroke placement in sets one and two, and often got burned by the Tsitsipas forehand strength when going into that wing. This shifted as the match wore on, with Novak able to find the Tsitsipas backhand with more regularity (48% of the time in sets 3, 4 & 5 compared to 36% of the time in sets 1 & 2):
Tsitsipas, through a mixture of fatigue and having to hit more backhands in uncomfortable positions, was also forced to play his weakest shot, the backhand slice, with more regularity in the final three sets:
Sets 1 & 2: Tsitsipas hit topspin backhands 80% of the time, and sliced 20%.
Sets 3, 4 & 5: Tsitsipas hit topspin backhands 68% of the time and sliced 32%.
Probably over and above any strategic edge that Djokovic enjoyed and exploited in this match, was a hefty experience edge. After Tsitsipas had gone up two sets to love, and had been broken early in set 3, there was a noticeable physical drop off from the Greek. Djokovic having played in so many of these tough Slam finals, is an expert in managing both his nerves and physicality throughout the 4+ hours of a five set match. Tsitsipas, in his first Slam final, seemed understandably to burn up much of his energy in sets one and two, and left very little in the tank for the remainder of the match. This was evident in set 5, when Djokovic was winning more of the longer exchanges that mattered, and Tsitsipas committed the largest number of unforced errors of any set (16), as his lateral movement looked particularly sluggish.
This was confirmed by Tsitsipas in press:
“Suddenly (after the second set), I just felt cold and out of it. I wish I could understand why things evolved like this. It was very unfortunate, a sad moment. I lost an opportunity.
“What I learned today is that no matter what, in order for the match to be finished, you have to win three sets and not two. Two sets doesn't really mean anything. It's still one away of winning the entire match.”
Another problem for Tsitsipas, and one of the larger developmental hurdles for him to overcome, is that his return is regularly not good enough to put consistent pressure on opponents. If he can make it to a tiebreak (like set 1), or his opponent hits a lot of 2nd serves, he can come through if he looks after his own serve. But going down an early break in each of the final three sets was essentially fatal given how untroubled Novak looked on serve in the latter half of the match (Novak’s slice first serve was excellent in the last three sets).
TL;DR Summary: Tsitsipas got off to an extremely hot start to win a close first set, and showed that he definitely has the tools to beat the very best in a Slam final. But a combination of a lack of experience when it comes to managing exertion and mental fatigue, and Djokovic switching his strategy up for the latter three sets to exploit Tsitsipas’ backhand, turned the match around swiftly.
Djokovic, in his final two matches of the tournament, essentially managed to blunt the effectiveness of the two most brutal forehands on clay right now. A truly incredible achievement. But on top of any strategic supremacy, the biggest ace up Novak’s sleeve on Sunday was simply that he’d been there and done that before, and Tsitsipas had not. The Greek, who should be deeply proud of his two weeks in Paris, will get many more opportunities like this.
Tsitsipas can take solace in knowing the guy across the net from him went through similar situations to get where he is today:
Djokovic’s coach Marián Vajda: “Novak is ready to play five sets. He's physically ready, mentally ready. He had so many matches, those kind of matches, he played so many five sets here. He had some bad ones when he was young. He learned from that.”
See you on Thursday
If you have any questions or thoughts about what you just read you can leave a comment below & I’ll answer it. No question is dumb.
The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) analysis piece every Sunday/Monday.
Top: Adam Pretty/Getty
// Looking for more?
(Most recent) Medvedev Loves(?) The Clay? https://theracquet.substack.com/p/medvedev-lovesthe-clay
Osaka Boycotts The Press: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/naomi-osaka-boycotts-the-press
Federer Redux - The Iceberg Flips: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-federer-redux
Rome Final Analysis - Nadal vs Djokovic: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/rome-final-nadal-vs-djokovic
Stop Screwing Umpires On Clay: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/lets-stop-screwing-the-umpires-on
Analysis of the Tsitsipas vs Rublev Monte Carlo Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/monte-carlo-final-tsitsipas-vs-rublev
Do Flatter Hitters Have it Harder On Clay? https://theracquet.substack.com/p/daniil-medvedev-does-not-like-the
The Modernisation Of Tennis: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-modernisation-of-tennis
Tennis’ Identity Crisis: The Umpire Problem https://theracquet.substack.com/p/tennis-identity-crisis
Analysis of the Djoković Medvedev Australian Open Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-racquet-micro-not-macro-match