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The First 4 Shots – Video
Adapt or die.
If something is not working, you try something else. Common sense. ✅
If your favorite pattern of play works like a charm against every other player in the world except the guy currently standing on the other side of the court, then you better bring a strong Plan B. And C. And D through Z… Whatever it takes to reach the finish line first.
Case Study: Nadal v Djokovic
From 2006 to 2010 Rafael Nadal built a dominant 15-8 head-to-head record against Novak Djokovic – primarily built on Rafa’s heavy, snarling, high bouncing, forehand that would explode off the court up high to Djokovic’s backhand. They played twice in 2010, with the following results:
- Nadal d Djokovic 7-5, 6-2 – London ATP Finals (round robin play)
- Nadal d Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 – US Open Final
Nadal had Djokovic figured out. Pummel the backhand with the forehand. Get it up in his grill. Push Nole back and work the ball up high. That was the driving force in the rivalry.
Then Novak adapted – and won SEVEN STRAIGHT TIMES.
- Djokovic d Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 – 2011 Indian Wells Final
- Djokovic d Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(4) – 2011 Miami Final
- Djokovic d Nadal 7-5, 6-4 – 2011 Madrid Final
- Djokovic d Nadal 6-4, 6-4 – 2011 Rome Final
- Djokovic d Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 – 2011 Wimbledon Final
- Djokovic d Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7(3), 6-1 – 2011 US Open Final
- Djokovic d Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5 – 2012 Australian Open Final
What did Djokovic do to turn the tables so dramatically? He adapted. He figured out the problem and came up with a solution. Instead of staying deeper in the court where he normally rallies from, he did the following two things…
- Stood closer to the baseline to take Nadal’s forehand earlier – and subsequently lower.
- Redirected it down the line to Nadal’s backhand instead of going back cross court.
It took Nadal over a year to figure out what in the world was happening to him. Nadal kept playing the exact same strategy that had proved so successful from 2006 to 2010. It didn’t work, because the 2010 version of Nole simply didn’t exist anymore. He had adapted. The 2011 version of Djokovic ate Rafa’s 2010 tactics for lunch.
Which brings us to Richard Gasquet…
Rafa defeated Richard 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, on Court Philippe-Chatrier yesterday after racing out to a 5-0 lead. That’s 15 straight wins for Rafa in this head-to-head battle.
Richard has one of the most elegant, efficient backhands in the world. He carves up opponents like crazy with it, amassing north of sixteen million in prizemoney. But it’s no match for Rafa’s forehand, and he knows it.
So what should Richard have done? Play the same way (court position, cross court direction, spin, etc.) that he does against other players and surely lose again, or try something different that may have a shot at the upset? Stay the course or adapt?
In Richard’s post-match press conference yesterday, the dilemma was immediately addressed with the first question.
QUESTION. You played him so many times. Did you think of trying something different today, or…
RICHARD GASQUET: No, I tried to play my game, you know. It’s not easy to do, to find another game. I tried my best. I tried to serve well, but I think it’s tough for me because my best stroke is the backhand. With him, I’m going on his forehand. And on the diagonal, he’s just better than me. That is a big key for me. That’s why it’s very difficult for me to play against his game.
Richard chose to play his game and stay in his comfort zone. It was competitive at times, but it offered almost zero chance of victory.
Note To Coaches – Do your juniors have other weapons they can go to if the player on the other side of the net is better in a specific area? Are you teaching enough serve and volley, enough attacking the net, enough taking the ball on the rise, and enough backhands down the line?
Next question for Richard.
QUESTION: Beyond your loss, which is logical, don’t you think the score is a bit severe? If we think of the game balls you had.
RICHARD GASQUET: There may have been many game balls. I don’t know. I haven’t played at that level for a long time. This has nothing to do with anyone else, especially on the center court. Lots of rebound. The court was slippery. Against one of the best players in the world who is left-handed. It’s very atypical to play against him. His forehand comes out very strongly. I started badly. I didn’t have many focal points on the court. 0-30, I could have maybe gotten in this game. But whatever. He was stronger than I was.
He was not used to Rafa’s level. It’s hard for juniors as well as pros to step up and play better if you have not faced an opponent such as Rafa in a long time. Point taken. Also, Richard provides a great insight into Court Philippe Chatrier. It bounces HIGH! Far from ideal for a one-handed backhand.
QUESTION: Can you tell me about this feeling when you’re in your diagonal against his forehand you think once again I’m in it?
RICHARD GASQUET: Yes, you can see it. You see the quality of his ball. He strikes strongly. Deep ball. When he plays on his forehand, he has an intensity which is monstrous. You know it, you have to hold on for all points. But I really have trouble with his forehand that comes to my shoulder every time. It’s not easy for me, for my game, and it’s what hurts me against him because 90% of players I can control this diagonal, and with him it’s complicated. Then it’s the center court. There was a lot of rebound, very high rebound today, so with his quality of ball, it wasn’t easy.
Here’s the problem for Richard…
- Nadal 13
- Gasquet 33
Rafa’s Ad court tactic of pounding Richard’s backhand into submission was not something that Rafa was going to be shy about.
- Rafa won the first 12 points of the match.
- Seven of those points were Gasquet backhand errors.
The match was just seven minutes old and Rafa had already destroyed Richard’s favorite shot. It was immediately obvious on this high-bouncing center court that if Richard hit his backhand crosscourt, Rafa was going to work it back higher and heavier, ramping up the pressure as the rally developed. The longer the rally, the more trouble Richard got into.
Here’s some more eye-opening metrics surrounding Richard’s 33 backhand errors.
Rafa’s previous shot – before Gasquet backhand error.
- From a forehand = 23
- From a backhand = 3
- From a serve = 7
Of the 26 backhand groundstroke errors that Richard committed, 88% (23/26) came from Rafa’s forehand. Remember that Richard committed seven backhand errors in the opening 12 points? Five were from Rafa’s forehand, and two were a return.
Here’s where the analytics get even worse for Richard.
Shot direction of Gasquet backhand error.
- To Rafa’s forehand = 24 (73%)
- To Rafa’s backhand = 9 (27%)
This is pretty amazing. Richard’s backhand was under fire from Rafa’s forehand, and the direction he was trying to go when he made the error was overwhelmingly to Rafa’s… forehand. Goodness.
Did Richard try and take a leaf out of Novak’s game plan and move up closer to the baseline, or inside it, to counter the spin? In a word, no.
Court Position Of Gasquet backhand error.
- Standing behind the baseline = 20
- Standing inside the baseline = 6
- Return of serve = 7
Many of Richard’s backhand groundstroke errors were so, so far back behind the baseline, where he had zero chance of hurting Rafa. Richard feels comfortable back there, but nobody in the world is more comfortable playing deep in the court than the Spaniard.
This match was over before it started. Rafa won 20 of the first 22 points of the match. What got Richard to the third round with victories over Andreas Seppi and Malek Jaziri was not going to hurt Nadal at all. Factor in the high bouncing centre court, factor in a hot day (fast court), and factor in Rafa’s supreme recent form.
What can we learn from this?
Plan B. That’s the focus. And Plan C, and on, and on, and on. Variety. Options. Different looks.
Coaches – teach juniors from a young age to problem solve and experiment with different styles of play. Add layers and dimensions and options into the overall game style of the juniors you are developing.
Here are TEN things that I would have liked to see Richard do more of.
- Stand up around the baseline as much as possible. You can’t hurt Rafa from 10-15 feet behind the baseline. So many errors were so deep in the court. Pointless.
- Hit the MAJORITY of backhands down the line to his backhand. Get it there quickly. Rush him.
- Go for it earlier in the point. Serve +1 and Return +1 are power shots. Seek to play more points than normal in the 0-4 rally length. Rafa won 0-4 in this match 54 – 43 (+11), but when a fifth shot or more was hit in the rally, Rafa won 39 – 14 (+ a country mile). Maybe Richard should have just grabbed the ball and kicked it into the stands if he has not won the point within the first four shots! Kinda kidding, but not really.
- Get to the net as much as possible. Richard won 67% at net (12/18), but only 27% (25/92) from the baseline. Heck, live at the net! Set up a tent, and a lemonade stand!
- Serve and volley like a fiend. Richard actually did sprinkle it in. I would have loved to see a LOT MORE!
- Hammer forehands cross court to Rafa’s backhand and then take it big down the line. Commit to a winning strategy – don;t just dabble in it.
- Stand up around the baseline and hammer returns deep middle. Take Rafa’s time away. Yes, there may be a few more return errors, but if you often gain early control of the point, the payoff is huge.
- More drop shots. Then follow it to the net for a 50-50 volley duel.
- Hit slow, low slice backhands down the line to give Rafa far less power to work with. Plus it automatically lowers the rally.
- Practice all these things for hours on end in the two days you have before the match. Then take this new toolset to battle and maybe, just maybe, it throws a monkey wrench into #UnaDecima.
Is it more important to hit the ball where you want to hit it, or more important to hit it where your opponent does not want it?
I think you know the answer… 👍👍