Federer, Nadal & Djokovic Make A Dent
Exploring How The Big 3 Impact Each Other Compared To The Whole Field
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The following is a look at the ways in which the three greatest men’s players to ever pick up a racquet impact each other, across all surfaces. It’s basically a simplistic way of quantifying how much harder it is for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to play each other than the field as a whole.
The full spreadsheet is here if you’d like to take a closer look (can also be used as a pretty good reference point to use if/when they next play each other).
Head-to-heads always get more interesting the more time passes, and the deeper these guys go into their careers and rivalries, simply because the sample size of results gets larger and less noisy. Now that these legends are approaching the tail end of their careers we have a rich treasure chest of data from the holy triad of matchups.
Here is how they stack up across their 146(!) matches.
Raw Figure Credit: Mix of ATP & Tennis Abstract (Incl. Laver Cup Results)
Predictably each of them make large dents in each other’s games compared to their performances against the whole field (career). But here are a few interesting bits and/or exceptions that jump out and what they mean.
Djokovic's serving vs Nadal on hard courts:
Especially in recent years Djokovic has dominated Nadal on hard courts (Djokovic’s favourite surface), and perhaps the biggest reason for this comes down to their serve and return dynamic. As you can see above, Novak performs better against Nadal on hard courts than he does against the whole field on ace rate and 2nd serve win %, and is nearly equal on hold % and service pts won (also not far off on 1st serve points won).
Nadal not making much of a dent, relative to the field, in this regard:
On return, Nadal has a career break-of-serve rate on hard courts of 29%. Against Djokovic it’s more than cut in half at just 14%.
Essentially Djokovic, specifically since 2013, hasn’t had much more difficulty holding serve against Nadal on hard courts than he has against the field as a whole! This is actually pretty extraordinary and gives some more context as to why Nadal has broken Djokovic’s serve just twice on hard courts across their last 9 meetings dating back to Beijing 2013. Boris Becker (who came in as coach around that time) deserves credit here as Novak’s serve has improved pretty consistently after he lost to Nadal in that epic 2013 US Open final. Since then Rafa really hasn’t had a good read, nor reply, for Djokovic’s serve on hard courts.
Nadal and Djokovic ace each other at a higher rate than either of them ace Federer:
This is a fun one because Nadal and Djokovic consistently rank as two of the best returners on tour, and do take bigger chunks out of each other in the other return categories, but Federer is generally harder to ace than either of them within this matchup triangle.
Federer does have a particularly good block return as well as awesome anticipation. But him being aced less often than Djokovic, when Nadal is the server on all three surfaces, was a bit of a surprise. A possibility is that Federer and his single hander is a bit better at at least getting his racquet to some of Nadal’s lefty, wide serves on the AD side than Djokovic’s two hander. Combined with the fact that Federer tends to stand quite close to the baseline on return, possibly helping him cut off that angle out wide and at least touch some of Rafa’s swinging serves. I’m sure I’ll do some more digging on this at some point.
Nadal’s bigger dent on clay
Unsurprisingly Nadal makes a huge dent in both Federer and Djokovic’s performance on clay (his favourite surface). Whilst Djokovic and Federer both have similar sorts of rivalry impacts on their own preferred surfaces against the other two (grass for Federer and hard for Djokovic), Nadal is particularly impactful, across both serve and return, against both his biggest rivals. Rafa knocks off serious chunks of %’s compared to Federer and Djokovic’s overall clay performance vs the whole field.
Djokovic vs Nadal on clay compared to Djokovic’s career clay performance:
— Particularly notable is Nadal knocking 16% off Djokovic’s hold-of-serve rate and 11% off his break-of-serve rate.
Federer vs Nadal on clay compared to Federer’s career clay performance:
— Once again, Nadal knocking off huge chunks on both hold-of-serve rate (-17%) and break-of-serve rate (-9%)
In a game of fine margins those are enormous performance differences, on both serve and return, against both of his biggest rivals. In multiple categories, Djokovic and Federer couldn’t make much more of a dent in Nadal on a clay court than the field as a whole could.
There are many more interesting bits and bobs from the numbers but I’ll let some of the more keen fans find those on your own. Let me know if you find something good.
See you next week.
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// Looking for more?
Tennis’ Identity Crisis: The Umpire Problem https://theracquet.substack.com/p/tennis-identity-crisis
Analysis of the Djokovic Medvedev Australian Open Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-racquet-micro-not-macro-match
The Modernisation Of Tennis: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-modernisation-of-tennis
Analysis of the Nadal Medvedev US Open Final Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-racquet-the-5th-set
— Two things from twitter this week: