Brain Game: The 'Assist' Djokovic Used To Set Up Winners Against Tsitsipas
Does tennis possess the basketball equivalent of an assist?
Novak Djokovic defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4 in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open Sunday, with the Serbian's forehand sizzling from start to finish. Djokovic struck 14 forehand winners to Tsitsipas' seven, but those numbers only begin to tell the story of overall forehand performance.
Forehand winners are often delivered as a decisive blow to end the point, bringing the crowd to its feet with spectacular speed, spin and direction. But we often fail to connect the dots to see where this dominant shot was initially born.
Djokovic and Tsitsipas combined to hit 21 forehand groundstroke winners, with a staggering 90 per cent (19/21) occurring when the player started the point serving. This uncovers an undeniable link between the first shot of the rally and the last, with the serve providing a valuable assist for the forehand winner.
All seven of Tsitsipas' forehand winners occurred when he was serving, while 12 of Djokovic's 14 forehand winners came after his serve. The following data shows the breakdown of forehand winners for the match.
Serve +1 Forehand Winners
• Djokovic = 3
• Tsitsipas = 4
Return +1 Forehand Winners
• Djokovic = 1
• Tsitsipas = 0
Rally Forehand Winners (from the fifth shot onwards)• Djokovic 10 (9 when serving)
• Tsitsipas 3
Both Djokovic and Tsitsipas totaled four forehand winners each in the 0-4 shot rally length, displaying an evenness in the "First Strike" phase of the point. Once the rally reached five shots or longer, it was Djokovic who clearly took the honours, amassing 10 forehand winners to only three for Tsitsipas. Overall, 77 per cent (17/22) of all forehand winners for the match occurred in single digit rallies, with five making it to double digits.
Length of Rally/Forehand Winners
3 shots = 7
4 shots = 1
5 shots = 5
6 shots = 1
7 shots = 1
9 shots = 1
11 shots = 3
13 shots = 1
17 shots = 1
Over half of the forehand winners (12/21) struck by both players were in the three and five-shot rally lengths, which were essentially the first two times the player had an opportunity to hit a forehand winner after starting the point with a serve.
When you compare forehand metrics to backhand for this match, you can clearly see very different behaviour to what provided the assist the most. Djokovic hit 10 backhand groundstroke winners for the match, with only four of them coming behind his own serve. Tsitsipas hit three backhand winners for the match, with only one of them occurring when he was serving.
This type of analysis helps look at our sport from a slightly different perspective. Is it better to evaluate how a point ended by initially recognizing how it began?
Editor's Note: ATP Brain Game author Craig O'Shannessy is part of Novak Djokovic's coaching team.