Brain Game: Nadal's Sudden Impact
Get the lowdown on Rafael Nadal's win over Stan Wawrinka on Monday
Serve +1 is back, with bells on. Rafael Nadal defeated Stan Wawrinka 6-3, 6-2 at the Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals last night, and his conviction to hit a forehand as the first shot after the serve was as important as anything he did to secure the first round victory.
Serve +1 is a key strategy that combines the serve, and the first shot after the serve, into one unit, efficiently multiplying their dominant effect.
Nadal hit a serve followed by a groundstroke 37 times against Wawrinka, and amazingly hit a forehand on 33 of them. Hitting 89 per cent forehands as the first shot after the serve allows Nadal to lock down control for the next two to three shots, where the opponent is either forced into an error, or Nadal successfully opens holes in the court to hit a winner.
With the match squarely in the balance in the opening set, Nadal’s Serve +1 strategy heavily contributed to him winning a lop-sided 94 per cent (16/17) of rallies between five and nine shots.
Nadal would win a staggering 80 per cent (29/36) of 5-9 shot rallies for the match, also committing only 12 unforced errors to Wawrinka’s 35.
As Nadal begins his climb back up the mountain to the pinnacle of professional tennis, his forehand is what will primarily be responsible for getting him there, and the Serve +1 forehand tactic is the perfect way to measure his progress.
Nadal made a solid 61 per cent of his first serves for the match, which enabled aggressive court position to attack Wawrinka with his Serve +1 forehand tactic.
Nadal made contact with the ball 39 per cent of the time inside the baseline with his first forehand after the serve, 46 per cent within two metres of the baseline, and only 15 per cent backed up more than two metres behind the baseline.
The Serve +1 strategy enabled Nadal to have much more control of his service games, facing only three break points for the match against Wawrinka, while the Swiss had to stare down 15.
Nadal’s first serve strategy in the deuce court in the critical first set was typically slicing down the middle to Wawrinka’s backhand, where he won four of five, also winning one of two as a surprise out wide to the forehand.
But things were different in the Ad court in Set 1, with Nadal only slicing two serves out wide to the backhand. Nadal directed the other five serves at the forehand body location of Wawrinka, jamming him up, where he typically elicited a defensive forehand slice return from the Swiss.
It was the perfect play for Nadal to stop Wawrinka immediately finding his backhand with the return, as only one of Wawrinka’s first serve returns in the opening set landed closer to the baseline than the service line.
Overall, 60 per cent of Wawrinka’s first serve returns in Set 1 landed in close proximity to the service line, and 30 per cent landed short in the service box.
Nadal was typically able to increase control as rallies developed, pressuring with superior court position, and getting the ball up high in Wawrinka’s backhand strike zone.
After the first three games of the match, Wawrinka had made contact with 60 per cent of his rally shots more than two metres behind the baseline, to only 27 per cent from Nadal.
Nadal’s forehand also had more spin on it than normal, averaging an astounding 3390 RPM’s. This helped push Wawrinka back, averaging hitting backhands 1.44m (4.7 feet) behind the baseline, to Nadal’s 1.19m (3.9 feet).
All of these key metrics point to one obvious conclusion for Nadal - his game is getting healthier.
The Spaniard was able to clearly frustrate Wawrinka, who rushed between points, and could not put together a clear game plan to counter Nadal’s key patterns. Wawrinka was often out of sorts, and Nadal must get most of the credit for that.
The rebuilding stage for Nadal is now in full flight. Key patterns are being correctly executed, and confidence is building.
“I go day by day, that’s all,” Nadal said in his post-match interview, clearly happy with his performance. That’s how a champion is made in our great game.