Brain Game: Stan's Tactics Revealed
Dissect the keys to Wawrinka's success in Melbourne.
Stanislas Wawrinka played the best set of tennis of his life to set up a stunning victory over Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open in Melbourne. Wawrinka had to overcome nerves and an injured Nadal to close out the match but a smart game plan and outstanding execution early on set up the victory.
Wawrinka described his opening set as the “perfect start” for good reason. He won 11/11 first serve points including 3/3 serve and volley points and was 5/5 at the net. “I was moving well, feeling really aggressive, and I played my best set for sure by far,” he said.
Wawrinka’s domination over the World No. 1 to lead 6-3, 2-0 was built around strategic primary patterns (used 7 or 8 times out of 10) when the score was close and then employ secondary patterns (2 or 3 times out of 10) when he was ahead and the scoreboard didn’t apply extra pressure to the riskier tactic. The key was making Nadal unsure what was coming by getting the mix right to disguise the master plan.
Primary - Attack the Forehand
Wawrinka built his set-and-a-break lead with the clever tactic of going after Nadal’s forehand wide in the Ad court. Nadal is always looking to gravitate to his right to turn a backhand into a forehand in the deuce court, so Wawrinka often went wide in the Ad court early in the point to take advantage of this subtle movement. Nadal committed five forehand errors during this period, all in the Ad court, and four of them were sliding defensively as wide as the alley. Wawrinka wasted no time attacking this area, winning the opening point of the match by twice pressuring Nadal deep and wide, forcing a forehand error long down the line.
Primary - The Backhand Cage
Wawrinka constantly put Nadal on defense by hitting to his backhand out wide behind the alley in deuce court exchanges, which had three main benefits for Wawrinka: Nadal had no backhand winners in the first 11 games, it made it tough to hit his favorite run-around forehand in the deuce court and it created a lower percentage, wider angle to go down the line to neutralize the point to Wawrinka’s backhand. Wawrinka’s curling, cross-court forehand essentially put Nadal’s backhand in a cage. Wawrinka broke Nadal for the first time at 1-1, 15/40 with one of these excessively wide rally balls that Nadal could only manage to slice back, bouncing before the net.
Secondary - Backhand Down-The-Line
This was a masterful tactic from Wawrinka that was a crushing blow to Nadal every time it landed. Wawrinka hit the down-the-line backhand winner for the first time at 1-1, 40/15 off a low backhand slice down the line from Nadal. It won Wawrinka the game with a huge exclamation point. He hit it like a rocket as a passing shot in the following game. Nadal could not handle it, leading to the first break of serve of the match. The next time The Swiss used it was with Nadal serving at 1-4, 30/15. Wawrinka crushed three consecutive backhands cross court then pulled the trigger down the line for a spectacular winner. Just the threat of having such a huge weapon without always using it creates doubt and uncertainty in Nadal’s baseline movement and shot selection.
Secondary - Serve and Volley
The scoreboard dictated this clever surprise tactic as Wawrinka did it six times in building his set-and-a-break lead – never when he was behind in the point score; once with the point score tied and five times when he was ahead in the point score, including twice at 40/0 where the pressure was minimised. Wawrinka won five of six and what was interesting was the way he went about it – a sprint to the net with no split step, which enabled him to get well inside the service line when he had to hit a volley.
Nadal’s back injury early in the second set ended Wawrinka’s spectacular play as he now encountered a new opponent who served softer, took more risks and used less patterns. While it seems logical that an injured opponent should be easier to play, quite often it’s the complete opposite as Wawrinka’s brilliant tactics no longer applied. Clarity was replaced with nerves, and as is often the case, Wawrinka hoped Nadal would miss.
Wawrinka battled himself during the third set, which he lost, and for most of the fourth until he got the final break of serve to go ahead 5-3 and then served it out for an incredible, rollercoaster victory. The best set of his life laid the perfect foundation for the best win of his life and the fulfillment of a dream to become a Grand Slam champion.
Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Read more at www.braingametennis.com.