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Novak Djokovic controlled the baseline in defeating Roger Federer for the Rome title.

Brain Game: Novak's Smothering Baseline Display The Key

Break down Djokovic's decisive win in Rome. 

In the important moments that decide matches and create legends, the ability to make your opponent uncomfortable reigns supreme.

Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer 6-4, 6-3 in the Internazionali BNL d’Italia final by mauling Federer’s slice backhand at the most pivotal moment of the match - 4-4 in the opening set.

Federer’s solitary break point opportunity came at 4-4, Ad Out, where he committed a slice backhand error down the line at the end of a 20-shot rally. Back at deuce, Federer hit two short slice backhands and Djokovic dispatched a routine forehand winner. On game point, Federer committed another slice backhand return error off a first serve.

With the match squarely in the balance, Federer’s last eight shots of the game, spanning three points, were all backhands. Federer hit seven of the eight as a defensive slice, and two of them crucially missed their mark.

It was the pressure of Djokovic’s smothering baseline game that was the dominant factor more than anything Federer did technically or tactically wrong. Saving the break point enabled the Serb to squarely grasp the momentum, and break Federer in the next game to secure the opening set.

While winners and unforced errors are always calculated on a stat sheet, it’s the forced errors that matters the most, offering a repeatable pathway to secure victory at all levels of the game.

Baseline Control

A key factor in Djokovic’s dominance this year is his relentless control of the baseline. At 3-3 in the opening set, Djokovic had won 14 of the first 20 baseline points, providing Federer very little opportunity from the back of the court. At 6-4, 3-0, Djokovic had won a staggering 30 baseline points to only 12 for the Swiss.

The depth of Djokovic’s groundstrokes was a key factor, with a healthy 39 per cent of his shots landing closer to the baseline than the service line in the opening set. Djokovic was clearly directing traffic to Federer’s backhand in the first set, hitting 69 per cent of all balls to the backhand that landed past the service line.

With Djokovic controlling the directional flow of rallies from the baseline, he only committed 10 unforced errors for the match, giving Federer no hope to extract easy points. With Federer defending with so many backhands, Djokovic’s forehand reaped the benefit with 10 forehand winners, to Federer’s six.

Djokovic also mixed in five drop shots, winning four of them, keeping Federer off balance by pushing him back with deep groundstrokes, and then throwing in perfectly disguised drop shots at key moments.

Djokovic Serve Placement

Djokovic clearly won the guessing game of first serve placement, constantly mixing it up to keep Federer from gaining a first strike advantage. Djokovic served 17 first serves to Federer’s forehand, with the Swiss only managing to win two. Djokovic also directed 15 first serves at Federer’s backhand wing, where he could only win three.

On second serves, Djokovic hit almost three out of four (11/15) to Federer’s backhand return, winning an extremely high 66 per cent of second serve points. Djokovic hit a forehand as his first shot after the serve 12 times, winning nine, and a backhand as the first shot 18 times, winning 12.

First Strike Dominance

Federer correctly tried to keep points as short as possible, with 65 per cent of points consisting of four shots or less, 30 per cent between five and nine shots, and only eight per cent making it to at least 10 shots.

Today’s clay court tactics feature far less grinding, and a lot more attacking than the past. Djokovic had a winning advantage in all three rally lengths, winning the short points 41-34, medium 22-13, and rallies over 10 shots, seven to two. Federer won 67 per cent (8/12) serving and volleying and 65 per cent (13/20) approaching, but losing so many of the baseline exchanges proved too big of a hurdle to overcome.

Djokovic now has his sights squarely set on adding Roland Garros silverware to his collection. By winning Monte-Carlo, and now Rome, his clay court game is perfectly tuned to achieve ultimate glory in Paris.

Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Read more at www.braingametennis.com.

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