A match for the ages.
Firstly, Happy Birthday Rafa!
This is going to a big one! Bigger than Ben Hur, as we like to say Down Under.
(For my live twitter analysis – follow @braingametennis)
This is one of those matches where the hype, the build-up, the pre-match tension, is felt by millions and millions and millions all over the world. Little kids get inspired from stuff like this, and take up the sport for a lifetime. They feel the magnitude of the moment. I certainly feel it.
This feels gigantic, because it is. There is so much riding on this match, and I really like that it is a quarter-final, rather than a semi or a final. Both players have a monstrous global fan base that is incredibly passionate and supportive of their man. This is a Super Bowl of a match, that just happens to have two more huge matches following it in the coming days.
So let’s dive into 25 crucial elements of this block buster that will have an effect on the final outcome. This will be the 44th time they have played – we are definitely lucky to be around to witness these superstars in their prime.
1. Nadal’s Forehand Winners – to Djokovic’s Forehand
When Nadal takes his lefty forehand cross court through the ad court, it’s like a boxer punching to the stomach, trying to soften up the opponent. In this case, it’s directed at the Djokovic backhand, which just happens to be the strongest stomach in the game. Nadal is going to hit very few forehand winners here. The knockout punch will actually be directed to the Djokovic forehand side, through the deuce court. In last year’s final, Nadal overplayed Djokovic’s backhand in the opening set, and lost it 6-3. He then changed tactics in the second set, and attacked Djokovic’s forehand a lot more, winning the match 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4. Importantly, he directed 85% (23/27) of his forehand winners to Djokovic’s forehand side! The most prolific way he did it? By hitting 13 forehand winners straight down the line. Remember, 23 forehand winners went to Djokovic’s forehand and only four to the backhand side. Nadal’s errors mirrored his objective – the Spaniard committed 66 per cent (24/36) of his forehand errors towards Djokovic’s forehand, with 18 missing their mark straight down the line. Nadal needs to dial in this pattern as much as possible to achieve victory on Wednesday.
2. Nadal’s Forehand Winners – more from Ad Court
Djokovic’s backhand is a wrecking ball for Nadal’s run-around forehand in the deuce court. Against pretty much every other player on the planet, Nadal looks to hit more run around forehands from the deuce court, which typically produces the majority of his forehand winners. Not against Novak. Novak’s backhand down the line makes Nadal hit a ton of backhands in the deuce court instead of run-around forehands. Nadal just needs to accept this, instead of fighting it, and get smarter with his ad court forehand – which is still a very formidable weapon. In the 2014 final, Nadal hit 13 forehand winners standing in the ad court and 10 forehand winners standing in his more favored deuce court. That reality is going to be a factor in this year’s quarter-final as well.
3. Get on a Roll
At some stage of the match, one player is going to win a bunch of points in a row, which will firmly grasp the momentum. In the 2014 RG final, Djokovic only won five points in five games from 5-5 in the second set to being down 0-3 in the third set. This period was the real turning point in the match. Who knows when it will come this time, but look for it – it’s going to play a major role in the final outcome.
4. Djokovic’s 1st Serve Backhand Return
This will be a key battleground for the Serb to nullify the Spaniard’s lefty slider serve. In the 2014 final, Djokovic’s backhand return under-performed against Nadal’s first serve, only winning 26.1% (17/65). It gave Nadal too many easy points that helped him grow a leg in other areas of his game. Overall, Nadal directed 80% of his first serves (65/81) to Djokovic’s backhand, and Nole really needs to make him pay for it. Of the 16 first serves Djokovic returned off his forehand wing, he won six, winning 37.5% – more than 10 percentage points higher than the backhand side. Nobody is better in the game at hitting a deep, neutralizing backhand return off a first serve than Djokovic, and I will be very surprised if Nadal hits as many serves to the backhand this time.
5. Djokovic 1st Serve Patterns
Against first serves, Nadal hit 36 backhand returns and 35 forehand returns in last year’s final. A lot of those forehand returns were wide in the Ad court as Djokovic looked to immediately open up a hole in the deuce court to attack Nadal’s backhand. I anticipate Djokovic serving more to Nadal’s backhand return this time, as it rarely puts Djokovic in a neutral or defensive position to start the point.
6. Nadal Serve + 1 Forehands
Nadal is the best in the world at seeking a forehand as his first shot after the serve. A major sub-plot of this match will once again be the ability of Djokovic to make Nadal start the point with a serve and an ensuing backhand – which will greatly hurt Nadal’s initial control of the point. In the 2014 final, Nadal hit a serve and a forehand 84% (74/88) of the time, and had a very healthy 60.8% winning percentage when he started that way. Of the 14 times he started with a serve and a backhand, he won 50% (7). That backhand percentage was abnormally high – it is typically 20% or lower. Every time Nadal hits a serve, Djokovic should make him hit a backhand as the first shot. When that does happen, look for Djokovic to win most of these points.
7. Djokovic Flatter, Harder Forehand
In Rome last year, Djokovic defeated Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, and the Serb crushed 46 winners to the Spaniards 15. How did he do it? By flattening out his forehand and giving it the good news. In general, Nadal wants a slower, higher rally with ridiculous spin. Djokovic, in turn, wants the opposite – a lower, flatter, harder rally to rush Nadal’s big forehand backswing. The Serb got it just right in this match, particularly with his forehand. Nole will want a shorter, harder point. Rafa will want a slower, higher, longer point. In Rome, Djokovic hit equally nine forehand winners from the deuce and ad court, for a total of 18, and added another four forehand return winners for good measure. All four forehand winners went to Nadal’s forehand – catching the Spaniard cheating to his right to try and turn an expected backhand into a run-around forehand. 45% of points in this final didn’t reach 5 shots, with Djokovic winning almost double (49 to 25) the amount of short points.
8. Djokovic Drop Shot
Novak has really fallen in love with his drop shot on clay this year, hitting it often, and enjoying a lot of success with it. I can see Djokovic hitting several, maybe even a dozen, in this match – particularly as a backhand standing inside the baseline right down the line to Rafa’s backhand. With Nadal wanting to set up shop so far back behind the baseline, the drop shot is the perfect counter move to hurt him, and also tire him out a little in the process. An added benefit is to keep Nadal off balance, not knowing exactly where to stand on the court. Djokovic hopes to drag him out of his comfort zone, yanking him back and forth, hurting his legs, lungs and mind with the chaotic strategy. In the 2014 Rome final, Djokovic won 5/9 against Nadal with the drop shot.
9. Nadal Break Points
Djokovic can play an excellent match – a glorious match – but unless he can convert break points, he is going to struggle against Nadal. In their 2012 Rome final, which Nadal won 7-5, 6-3, Nadal was broken once in the opening set, and then locked down in the second set as Djokovic went 0/6, including squandering a 0/40 opportunity in the first game of the second set. Nadal’s mental toughness really shines through when facing break point, and it is typically going to occur in the ad court, and Nadal will be hitting a nasty, lefty slider to the Djokovic backhand, hoping for an easy forehand from the return. Djokovic’s best play here is to cheat a little more to the alley to take away the angle, and then direct his backhand return deep down the middle to Nadal’s backhand. This will take away any angle to be hurt with on the next shot, and neutralize the huge point as quickly and efficiently as possible. Nadal saved 9/10 break points against David Ferrer in the Rome semi as well – helping to build his aura of invincibility.
10. 1st Serves
So far at #RG15, Nadal has hit 7 aces and 7 double faults, while Djokovic has hit 17 aces and only two double faults. Expect Djokovic to earn the honors as well in their quarter-final. Nadal is making 66% of his first serves, winning 71% of them, while Djokovic is making a ridiculously high 74% of his first serves, winning 77% of them them. Nadal is putting up pretty normal numbers, while Djokovic is lights out in this area. It is definitely going to be tougher for Rafa to break Nole than the other way around.
11. 2nd Serves
Rafa is winning 58% of his second serve points so far in the tournament. If he can win 50% against Djokovic, he will be doing extremely well. If that number drops to around 40%, his goose will be cooked. Djokovic is winning an outragous 65% of his second serve points so far for the tournament. It must be nice coming into such a big match with this part of the game humming.
12. Return Points Won v 1st Serves
Now we are squarely in Nadal’s favorite area, and he is at 44% for the tournament so far – much higher than Djokovic’s 32% points won. Rafa’s goal for the quarter final would be right around 35%. That will create a lot of pressure on Djokovic’s service games.
13. Return Points Won v 2nd Serves
Djokovic gets the honors here so far for the tournament, winning 62% to Nadal’s 56%. One of these players will likely be above 50% and the other under it once the dust has settled in the quarter final. Whoever does better in this key area will be a solid indicator as to who will be playing in the semi-final.
14. Break Points Won
Nadal is extremely solid at 47% (28/60) for the tournament so far, and Djokovic is at 38% (21/56). These are the golden points that will matter so much for both players in the quarter final. It will almost be like they play one match to get to break point, and then a whole new one to convert. It’s that big, and then some.
15. Break Points Saved
Nadal has saved 64% (14/22) of break points against him so far at this year’s French Open, and Djokovic is much, much more solid at 84% (16/19). This does not bode well for Nadal that the Serb is locking down so tight when he is faced with a break point. Nadal may only get to see a handful of break points, and he better convert at a solid rate to put pressure on the world number one.
Nadal has hit 71 winners, committed 53 forced errors, and coughed up 50 unforced errors in this key category. Djokovic has 63 winners, committed 52 forced errors, and only made 39 unforced errors. It’s the reduced number of unforced errors from Djokovic that catches the eye here. Not mis-firing with a major weapon is a very, very good thing.
Nadal has hit 21 winners, committed 54 forced errors and made only 28 unforced errors. Djokovic has 47 winners, 38 forced errors and 43 unforced errors. The extra 26 backhand winners by the Serb so far for the tournament is a huge number. Look for him to once again use it as a weapon against Nadal both down the line, and short angle cross court to pressure Nadal’s forehand on the run.
18. Baseline Points Won
Nadal is winning a very healthy 55% (270/494) of his baseline points so far – a really strong number to take into the quarter final. Djokovic is off the charts with his baseline dominance, winning a ridiculous 58% (219/378) so far. Nadal must win the baseline battle against Djokovic to make the semi’s. Unfortunately for the Spaniard, he is playing someone who is performing better in this battleground than he is.
19. Net Points Won
Djokovic is coming to the net a lot more than Nadal so far in the tournament to finish points. The Serb has come in 96 times, winning 68% of the points, while Nadal has come forward 69 times, winning 77% of the time. This will be a secondary tactic for both players in the quarter-final, but because the win percentage is so high, will play a big role for the aggressor to pick up some cheap points at net.
20. Extended Rallies (10+ Shot Rallies)
What is simply amazing is that Nadal has lost this key battle in two of the four matches he has played. When we think of Nadal winning matches at the French, we think of him dominating long rallies with heavy spin, running his opponent side to side. He has only won 55% (52/95) in four matches. Mind you, he had a losing percentage in this key area at the 2015 Australian Open. Djokovic is crushing in this area, winning 60% (56/94). If Nadal can’t win the longer exchanges against Djokovic, he will have to resort to Plan B or C to get over the line.
21: Patterns of Play (5-9 Shot Rallies)
Nadal is winning a healthy 55% (114/206) of these mid-range rallies, as you would expect. Djokovic is again dominating in a key metric, winning a jaw-dropping 62% (94/152) of these key points. Again, it bodes well for the Serb that he is performing not a little better, but much better than the Spaniard from the back of the court.
22. First Strike (0-4 Shot Rallies)
Nadal is winning 59% (250/424) of the quick rallies, which is actually three percentage points higher than Djokovic’s 56% (240/425). This may be an area than Nadal can mine a lot more against Djokovic, attacking him early and often to stop the Serb getting the slight edge once points develop a little longer.
23. Time On Court
Neither player has been really tested and had to spend extra time on court fighting through the early rounds. If anything, it’s the perfect amount of time to work out the kinks and work on areas of the game that will be called upon in this battle. Nadal has spent 9:02 on court so far, and Djokovic is at 7:38. Both players will be happy with that warm-up.
24. 1st Serve Speed
Both players have hit their fastest serve for the tournament at 202kph, but Djokovic averages higher on first serves at 172kph to Nadal’s 167kph. The Serb will be looking to pressure right from the start of the point with a little extra speed. Nadal’s fastest second serve was 182kph, and averaged 151kph, while Djokovic’s fastest second serve was 184kph, and averaged slightly slower than Nadal at 149kph. There will be nothing new here that the other player has not seen before, or successfully dealt with.
Is it Novak’s time? Does Nadal have number 10 still sitting in his bag of tricks? Can Novak take his incredible form this year into this match, or will it be Nadal that raises his level in his Happy Place – Court Philippe Chatrier? Whose time is it? Well, the answer to that question lies in the level of control each player exerts in the previous 24 key areas. Someone is going to be very happy, and very relieved to get through this battle. There will be butterflies – there always is when history is on the line. The timing of when players get hot, when they break serve, when they play bold on big points, will decide everything.
Matches like these are what drives the sport – sends a tingle up the spine. The build-up is enormous. Let’s hope for an epic encounter that takes our breath away.
Gentlemen – have fun, compete well, and play lights out! The world will be watching, and you will be inspiring a brand new generation in our sport.