Right out of the gate, it was drop shot mania on Court Philipp Chatrier.
Novak Djokovic stunned Rafael Nadal 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros with raw power through the court and subtlety and panache dragging Nadal to the front of the court. It was quintessential French theatre to begin the match, with Djokovic pulling all the strings of the marionette. The Serb pushed the Spaniard far back behind the baseline with superior power, direction, and depth, and then pulled him forward to the front of the court to take away his rhythm. Djokovic won 16 of the first 20 points. Nadal’s head was spinning.
Push. Pull. Discombulate.
Djokovic hit 10 drop shots in Set 1, winning seven, with the first salvo coming on the second point of the match. He was clearly not wanting to let Nadal dig a trench and dictate side-to-side on his favorite court. Nadal also hit four drop shots in the opening set, with the two he won both deft backhands down the line to save set points serving at 5-6, Ad Out.
Of the 14 combined drop shots, 10 were backhands straight down the line, one backhand crosscourt, and three forehands. The backhand down the line tactic offered excellent disguise for both players, with the racquet angle being changed and hidden behind the body in the backswing.
Djokovic’s unnerving strategy worked amazingly well to begin the match, and then Nadal finally found his range trailing 0-4. Nadal seized the momentum with his wicked spin and direction, winning 19 of the next 26 points. The 4-0 lead for Djokovic evaporated into a 4-4 dog fight. As often happens in matches at all levels, the player who leads early must absorb the tactical change and then regroup with a modified strategy to finish off the set. Djokovic was up to the task.
Djokovic Dominates Mid-Length Rallies
Djokovic’s biggest advantage was in rallies of 5-8 shots, where he won a dominant 70% (36/51) of points.
Rally Length Played
- 0-4 Shots = 52%
- 5-8 Shots = 29%
- 9+ Shots 19%
Djokovic also won the other two rally lengths, winning short rallies of 0-4 shots 49-41 and extended rallies of 9+ 17-15. It was the mid-length battles where Djokovic created the most distance from Nadal. The Spaniard has dominated the baseline at Roland Garros for almost a decade, but could only manage to win 37% (41/112) of his baseline points against the Super Serb. Djokovic’s masterful tactics enabled him to be more than 20 percentage points higher than Nadal at the baseline, winning 59% (59/100).
Most Dominant Shot: Djokovic Forehand
Djokovic smashed 23 forehand winners over three sets, while Nadal could only manage to hit three. Right from the opening bell, Djokovic dismantled Nadal’s groundstrokes with his ferocious forehand. Nadal’s forehand could not keep up, yielding 17 unforced errors. He needed his forehand to stay with Djokovic. It simply wasn’t at the level needed.
Djokovic’s superior groundstrokes extracted many short balls to come to the net and finish the point. Djokovic won a dominant 69% (25/36) at the net and had many more chances to come forward over the three sets. Nadal’s underperforming baseline metrics didn’t get any better coming forward, as he only won 46% (11/24) finishing at the net. The back of the court was clearly not working. The front of the court was not any better.
It was one of the most influential matches our sport has witnessed in the past few decades. On match point, Nadal double-faulted and Djokovic walked to the net with his arms raised high.
Can Djokovic recapture that form again if he plays Nadal in the 2021 semi-finals? There are more matches to get through for both players but the mere thought of a Nadal vs. Djokovic semi-final battle on a hot day in Paris next week is simply mouth-watering.