Droppers. S&V. Run-arounds.
Rafael Nadal defeated Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 6-3 in the semi-finals of the ATP500 Acapulco Open on Friday night.
The scoreboard looks fairly routine. It was far from it. The first thing to understand is that Nadal converted 3/6 break points, while Medvedev went… wait for it… 0/11. 0 for California. 0 for the agave farm. If Medvedev converts a few of those bad boys, the match could have been his. It was a high-quality encounter that Nadal managed to near-perfection. Too much experience. Too much confidence when the match was on the line.
There were three strategic elements of this match that really stood out. They were:
- 18 serve & volley points.
- 24 drop shots.
- 63% forehand groundstrokes for Nadal / 51% forehand groundstrokes for Medvedev.
So, let’s unpack each one of these to better understand how they affected the final outcome.
1: 18 Serve & Volley Points
We must first rewind back to their 2019 US Open final, which Nadal won 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4. It was actually a festival of serve & volley!
2019 US Open: Serve & Volley Points In The Final
- Nadal won 17/20
- Medvedev won 22/29
It’s important to know these two have some serious history when it comes to breaking out “old school” serve and volley tactics. They combined for a staggering 49 serve & volley points in New York. They were up to their shenanigans again in Acapulco.
2022 Acapulco Semi-Final
- Nadal won 7/8
- Medvedev won 5/10
Rafa was the big winner here. In the opening set, Medvedev won 4/6, while Nadal didn’t serve & volley at all. In the second set, Rafa ramped up the pressure at the front of the court, winning 7/8, while Medvedev only won 1/4. Why do these two BOTH gravitate to serve and volley when they play each other?
One reason. PAIN.
The pain that I am specifically talking about is the lactic-acid-inducing pain of running ragged side-to-side at the back of the court. Both are hellaciously good from the baseline, pounding forehands and backhands ad nauseam. They need a break from that pounding. They need to win some quick points and surprise the opponent. That’s why they love to sneak straight to the net. For relief. For instant gratification.
2: 24 Drop Shots
This is a lot for two sets for of tennis, and once again, Nadal got the better of Medvedev with this specific tactic.
2022 Acapulco Semi-Final
- Nadal won 7/9
- Medvedev won 8/15
Medvedev won two of five in the opening set, so it really wasn’t working for him early on. But then he went on a tear, winning six straight drop shots at the beginning of set two, before losing the last four he attempted. I see this a lot with drop shots. You do really well with them, and then the opponent figures out your sneaky plans, and then the winning quickly evaporates.
Nadal won all three drop shots in the opening set and won four of six in set two. Towards the end of the match, Medvedev lost the last four drop shot points he attempted, while at the same time, Nadal won all three of his.
The reason both players drop shot so much is for much the same reasons they both went with serve & volley. They are so evenly matched when trading blows baseline-to-baseline that they are looking for a slight edge somewhere else. An easier way to win a point. A surprise element. A little Houdini. Drop shots certainly qualify for that.
3: 63% Forehands For Nadal
Firstly, you need to know that there are really TWO types of forehands. Let’s use Nadal as an example. There is his “normal” forehand, where he hits forehands standing in the Ad court. Remember, Nadal is a lefty, so he would typically hit forehands standing in the Ad court and backhands standing in the Deuce court. But who are we kidding? This is Rafael Nadal, who only hits backhands when he absolutely has to. Nadal hit 63% (124) forehands and 37% (74) backhands in the match. Nobody runs around backhands to hit forehands more in the history of our sport than Rafa.
- 82 normal forehands (standing in the Ad court)
- 42 run-around forehands (standing in the Deuce court)
Nadal hit 34% of all forehands as a run-around in the Deuce court. All of those balls were directed to Nadal’s backhand by Medvedev, but Rafa ran around them and upgraded to a bigger, stronger forehand.
Run-Around Forehands (42)
- 2 winners
- 2 errors
- 38 in play
Normal Forehands (82)
- 3 winners
- 13 errors
- 66 in play
Nadal Backhands (74)
- 4 winners
- 6 errors
- 64 in play
Nadal’s normal forehands – standing in the Ad court – yielded the most errors out of the three categories with 13 errors. Take a look at how good the run-around forehand performance was. What I should have also “tagged” was how many errors he forced from those run-around forehands. It would have been a sizeable amount.
This is a very smart strategy adjustment from the 2022 Australian Open final where Rafa did not dine enough on run-around forehands standing in the Deuce court. He hit too many backhands, with way too many being slice backhands. That was a big reason why he fell in such a hole down two sets and some change in Melbourne.
While Nadal hit 63% forehands in Acapulco, Medvedev only hit 51% (100 forehands / 96 backhands). Here’s Medvedev’s performance in the same categories as we just analyzed Nadal in.
Run-Around Forehands (20)
- 0 winners
- 1 error
- 19 in play
Normal Forehands (80)
- 3 winners
- 14 errors
- 63 in play
Nadal Backhands (96)
- 9 winners
- 18 errors
- 69 in play
Medvedev is not nearly as thirsty for run-around forehands as Nadal is. Only 20% of Medvedev’s forehands were run-around, while Nadal was at 34%. Many balls went right down the middle of the court that Medvedev could have hit as a forehand but settled for a backhand. Medvedev’s backhand let him down at the finish line. He committed an error on four of his last five backhands of the match.
Serve and volley and drop shots are typically “secondary” patterns of play that are sprinkled throughout a match to surprise opponents. They became a significant part of this match, with Nadal getting the better of Medvedev in both categories. And then you have Nadal feasting on forehands from all over the back of the court. Nadal had to wriggle out of some long service games facing multiple break points. A point here and a point there and this result could have been very different.
Nadal is flying high right now, winning 14 straight matches to start the season, which is the best of his career. He is currently ranked No. 5 and has nothing to defend from Indian Wells and Miami. He is also only defending semi-finals in Madrid and Monte Carlo.
Is Rafa already working his way back up to the No. 1 ranking?
One thing is for sure.
Never, ever count Rafa out.