Nadal tweaks tactics to overcome the Djokovic barrier
It started at the Indian Wells final in March 2011. Novak Djokovic, having recently won his second grand slam title, was in the midst of an inspired, unbeaten run. But Rafael Nadal had beaten him on their two previous meetings—both times on hard courts, first in the 2010 US Open final with reasonable comfort, and second, commandingly, in the World Tour Finals in London. This though was a different Djokovic. A Djokovic who had daringly led Serbia to a historic victory in the Davis Cup, a Djokovic who was now a nerveless, chiseled champion, one who could seemingly outdo Nadal in chasing down a lost cause, and hit winners from ridiculous, unthinkable angles.
The first set went in Nadal’s favor, 6-4. The Spaniard could have been excused for thinking what all the hype about the unbeaten run was. He was outhitting Djokovic from the baseline, pushing him wider and wider on the backhand wing, and constantly opening up the angle for the down-the-line winner. Yes, it was a struggle, at times, but it was a struggle that he was used to, a struggle that had routinely helped him succeed in the past, a struggle that had seen him win 16 out of 23 matches against the Serb.
The second set saw Djokovic change both gears and tactics. He was unafraid of going for broke with his forehand, and he used his strong, double-handed backhand down the line—a stroke that he hits with remarkable pace and precision—to constantly push Nadal deeper and deeper into an abyss of uncertainty. Djokovic was able to use, perhaps, his most feared weapon, and direct it at Nadal’s achilees heel. He was blending caution and fearlessness with a hitherto unseen élan. He had his own serve broken once, but broke Nadal twice to take the second set 6-3. The third set saw the Serb take on an even more imperious air—he was recovering and placing balls with extraordinary accuracy from absurd angles. It was tennis at a different level, and it was a step too high for the world’s number one player.
The stage shifted to Miami, two weeks later. Again, Djokovic won in three. Madrid, on Rafa’s clay? Novak in two straight sets. Rome where Nadal had won the title six times? Djokovic in two easy ones. Could he do it in a grand slam final against Nadal, we wondered. We wouldn’t know at Roland Garros where Djokovic fell in the semifinal to an inspired Roger Federer, paving the way for Nadal to retain his championship. At Wimbledon then, in the hallowed grass, where Nadal was the defending champion? The answer: a resounding, authoritative yes.
Yet, this was no case of the vanquished having played poorly. Nadal was superb in the final, he’d have likely beaten any other opponent. He was striking the ball gloriously, finding angles that would have resulted in winners against anyone else. But Djokovic chased them all down; he was sliding on the grass like a skater on ice, twisting his body into weird, gymnastic shapes, and fighting and staying in every point before somehow finding either the room for a winner or forcing Nadal into an error. Djokovic’s excellence had now reached an otherworldly level. He had thrown down the gauntlet and how. This, you thought, was perfection, only there was even more to come from the Serb.
At the U.S. Open, Nadal would again face Djokovic in the final, this time a Djokovic who had defeated Federer in a truly epic five set semifinal, one in which he had saved two match points, the first with “The Shot.” The final was a punishing, beautiful affair—4 hours and 10 minutes of spellbinding, exquisite stroke-making. Nadal pummeled shot after shot with depth and topspin, Djokovic skidded across the blue, acrylic floor and returned with strokes of beguiling angle. It was nirvana for the neutral tennis fan. It was like you, as a viewer, were a part of the struggle. You couldn’t take your eyes of the ball; it was an exhausting, yet thoroughly mesmerizing spectacle. But for Nadal, who had not too long ago conquered the great Federer, this was decidedly cruel. He had, after all, been the best player in the world, perhaps, on all surfaces, between 2008 and 2010. He was still seemingly doing nothing wrong. He was playing as well as he could, hitting shots that would have been winners against any other opponent, yet Djokovic in lifting his tennis beyond earthly expectations was now untouchable.
How much longer could he sustain this, we wondered. Nadal did too, we’d imagine. Maybe the end of season break would shatter Djokovic’s resilience, and provide Nadal with time to make the tactical tweaks required to overcome his latest challenge. What could these tactical tweaks be? Was there anything that Nadal could seemingly improve?
The answer, oddly enough, would present itself in a grueling, psychologically crushing defeat that Nadal suffered at the Australian Open Final in January—his seventh in a row to Djokovic (the full match is available here, in case you’re interested). If we thought the final at Flushing Meadows in September was exhausting, this left us, the viewer, in a heap of pain. A tennis match that lasted for nearly 6 hours, a tennis match, which ebbed and flowed into a vibrant, entrancing theatrical performance. Djokovic lost the first set 5-7, only to take the second and the third with relative ease—relative only in the nature of the score-line. Nadal, we thought, was broken beyond redemption. Yet, he fought back, plugged away like the champion that he is, and took the fourth on a tiebreaker. The fifth saw Nadal get to within six points of victory, but Novak was more aggressive in the final phases, ever the anti-choker, as Siddhartha Vaidyanathan describes him in his latest piece. But even though Djokovic had triumphed, the match was indicative of a slight change in the tide.
Often, when we think of Nadal, we think of his biceps, his stamina, his power, his endurance, the sweat, the toil—all distinctively physical characteristics. But Nadal is more than his physical form. He is a master tactician—every shot that he plays is well thought out, every move that he makes is calculated. There is nothing chancy about his game. His strokes are placed with acuity, and he maneuvers the spin on his shots depending on the opponent and the surface. As, Tom Perrotta wrote in the WSJ: “Nadal’s consistency hides his often-brilliant tactics.”
Nadal was very quick to grasp that there were two essential elements of Djokovic’s game that were hurting him more than anything else—one being, the backhand down the line to his weaker wing, and the other, Djokovic’s return of serve. There was, though, at first viewing, nothing he could do to counter the Serb’s weapons.
Yet, perhaps on greater introspection, aided no doubt by his uncle and coach, Toni, Nadal realized that he needed to move away from his preferred serving areas. He has a tendency to serve to his right-handed opponent’s backhands—he almost always serves down the middle on the deuce court, for instance. At Roland Garros, this year, he apparently began each of his games in his first four matches with serves down the middle: extraordinarily predictable, but with the spin that he gets off the court, a tough serve to return effectively. But against Djokovic, this is a serve that rarely works. Novak has an amazing wing span that helps him not only reach the curved serve, but also return it with terrific depth and accuracy off his backhand, almost always right at Nadal, forcing him on to the defensive.
Craig O’Shannessy, who researches tennis strategy, pointed out in his review of the Australian Open final, that Nadal did, in fact, alter his serving strategy for the match. “His mix of serve location was better than usual,” O’Shannessy wrote. “On first serves, Nadal served out wide in both courts 39 times, at the body 41 times and down the middle to the ‘T’ 57 times.”
Nadal was broadly successful with his strategy–he came closer than he had in his previous six encounters to defeating Djokovic. Yet there were additional tweaks required, and these would be displayed, first in Monte Carlo and Rome, and then in the final at Roland Garros.
In Monte Carlo, as O’Shannessy said: “Nadal served much more to Djokovic’s forehand in this match and reaped the rewards of serving not where he prefers to serve but where Djokovic is not as deadly returning.” The key, though, was not just in the placement of the serve, but in that Nadal was able to use his forehand on the second shot a lot more. ““My serve worked very, very good,” he said. “Sure, I had a few free points with the serve. But most important thing, after the serve, I had the chance to go inside with my forehand a lot of times, so this makes a big difference, no?” he said after the match.
In the finals in Paris, Nadal showed a completely different dimension. Not only was he able to retain his new serving tactics against Djokovic, but he was also able to use his backhand far more effectively as a defensive weapon—he made only 23 unforced errors on the wing to Djokovic’s 37. O’Shannessy wrote: “[W]hen Nadal served, he was able to keep Djokovic away from his backhand far more effectively. Nadal served four times in the fourth set, and only hit 16 backhands in those four service games. That enabled him to use his sword a lot more when serving, where he hit 36 forehands for four winners and only one error.”
These may seem like minor tweaks, but when you’re used to serving predominantly to a right-hander’s backhand—particularly on the deuce court—making a change in the peak of your career is far from simple. But Nadal knew that to overcome his new challenge he had to work harder than, perhaps, he ever had, and force Djokovic to do things differently. And therein lies his greatness.