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Brain Game: Novak’s Slider Success

Brain Game reveals how Novak Djokovic’s serving tactics play a key role in his win over Rafael Nadal in the BNP Paribas Open semi-finals.

A lot went wrong for Novak Djokovic in the opening set against Rafael Nadal in their semi-final at the BNP Paribas Open Saturday, but one key strategy managed to flourish, and ultimately carry the World No. 1 to a 7-6(5) 6-2 victory.

The first set counted for everything in this match, as it has proven to be in their storied rivalry, with Djokovic owning a 20-3 record when winning the opening set, and Nadal almost identical at 20-4.

But Djokovic was floundering in the opening stanza, committing a head-turning 21 unforced errors to Nadal’s 16, along with 10 forehand return errors, and nine backhand return errors. The court temporarily not big enough for the World No. 1.

Djokovic immediately fell behind 0-2 courtesy of back-to-back double faults, and Nadal looked a real threat. But there was one ray of light, one very specific strategy that was instrumental in ultimately winning the opening set - outstanding success serving to the Spaniard’s backhand.

Overall in Set 1, Djokovic won 75 per cent (12/16) of first serves to Nadal’s backhand, and 80 per cent (4/5) on second serves. It was the perfect rescue plan when the rest of his game was out to sea.

Deuce Court - Wide Slider

There was no place Djokovic targeted more in the opening set with his first serve than a wide, slicing delivery in the deuce court.

He attempted 12, made 10, and won eight behind his first serve. Of the eight, three first serves were unreturned, and Djokovic hit five aggressive “Serve +1” forehands to ramp up the pressure and make Nadal run hard from well outside the deuce court alley to begin the point.

It speaks volumes to the amazing success of the tactic that Nadal was not able to make Djokovic hit a single backhand groundstroke as his first shot after the serve from this return location.

At 5-6, 15-15, with the pressure metre rising rapidly, Djokovic sliced his first serve out wide and hit two forehands and a backhand from a dominant court position right around the baseline. The Serb finished with an inside-in forehand winner from around the singles line in the ad court.

The forehand gets the credit for winning the point, but the wide slice serve was what really put him in the driver’s seat.

Leading 4-2 in the tie-break, Djokovic hit another wide slider for a let, then went straight back to the same location, procuring an easy Serve +1 run-around forehand winner from around the service line in the ad court.

At 5-5 in the ‘breaker, Djokovic went back to the same basic play, and Nadal split step the wrong way to the middle, missing a stretching wide backhand return long. It was a pivotal moment to stop Nadal’s three-point win streak from 2-5 in the tie-break.

Second Serves to the Backhand

Djokovic also went wide to the Nadal backhand in the deuce court with four second serves in the opening set, winning every one.

In Set 1, Djokovic committed three double faults, Nadal won 3/3 returning Djokovic’s second serve with a forehand return, but only 1/5 with a backhand return.

The four second serves that Djokovic won to Nadal’s backhand return were all sliced very wide to the Spaniard’s backhand in the deuce court at key moments.

The first was with Djokovic serving at 1-2, 30/30, then at 4-5, love -all, and deuce. The last one was at 5-6, 40/15 to send Djokovic into a tie-break.

Saving Set Point

Djokovic was down set point at 4-5, 30/40, and nailed a 118mph first serve down the middle in the ad court to Nadal’s backhand return. Djokovic then thumped two forehands from the middle of the court, with the second forcing a running forehand error from Nadal wide in the ad court.

Big points like this one demand the highest percentage pattern of play from the server. Djokovic nailed it.


With the pressure released from winning the opening set, Djokovic relaxed and found his game, only committing eight unforced errors in Set 2, while winning 100 per cent (7/7) on second serves. He didn’t face a break point.

It was a tough loss for Nadal, but also a very good one. Getting so close in Set 1 was a real positive, and the ability to dictate much more against Djokovic than we have recently seen will bring real hope that his game is headed in the right direction.

Sometimes it does not matter if a lot goes wrong in a tennis match, as long as you find a single ray of light to find your way home.