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A poised David Goffin claimed the upset of the Nitto ATP Finals, stunning Roger Federer in three sets.

Five Keys to Goffin’s Success Over Federer

Brain Game dives into the keys behind David Goffin's semi-final victory over Roger Federer at the Nitto ATP Finals

An unexpected loss is easier to understand once you connect the statistical dots.

David Goffin stunned Roger Federer 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 to move through to the final of the Nitto ATP Finals at The O2 after starting slow, but running all over the six-time champion at the finish line. 

The opening set was all Federer, and then the pendulum swung towards the Belgian as he broke for a 2-0 lead in the second set, and then again for a 2-1 lead at the beginning of the third. Set one looked nothing like sets two and three as Federer went from dictating points with authority to spraying loose balls with dismay.

In the first set, Federer laid down the law. He attacked at will, felt the magnetism of the baseline, and forced a nervous Goffin to miss balls he would normally make in his sleep. But in sets two and three, it was Goffin who relaxed more, upped his power level, and forced Federer to miss balls he routinely made in set one.

There were five metrics from the match that clearly showed the obvious difference in who controlled the strategic flow of points from set one to the last two sets. 

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1. Goffin: Average 2nd Serve Return Speed
Second serves are the real battleground in tennis, and Federer won a lot of these points on serve early in the match, forcing a slower Goffin return from a more confident second serve delivery. That changed dramatically the longer the match unfolded.

Goffin Average 2nd Serve Return Speed / Federer 2nd Serve Win Percentage
• Set 1 = Goffin 64mph average / Federer won 88%
• Set 2 = Goffin 71mph average / Federer won 50%
• Set 3 = Goffin 76mph average / Federer won 45%

It’s clear to see that the bolder Goffin became attacking Federer’s second serve, the better off he was. Goffin started too passive in this key area, but owned Federer by the end of the match by attacking it with his feet well inside the baseline, and with his hands, rifling powerful returns right back at the Swiss star.

2. Average Backhand Speed
These numbers clearly show who was leaning on who as the match unfolded. In the opening set, Federer had a one mile per hour advantage (68mph to 67mph) in average backhand speed, mainly because of several blistering backhands down the line. But by set three, Goffin was enjoying a 13mph advantage (70mph to 57mph) in this critical battleground.

Goffin Average Backhand Speed
• Set 1 = 67mph
• Set 2 = 68mph
• Set 3 = 70mph

Federer Average Backhand Speed
• Set 1 = 68mph
• Set 2 = 63mph
• Set 3 = 57mph

3. Goffin:  Average Return Net Clearance
In the opening set, Goffin was returning the ball higher over the net against both Federer’s first and second serves compared to sets two and three. You could clearly see that he was defensive in set one, hoping to neutralise the point much more than initially taking the battle right back at Federer. Goffin found his offensive range much better in sets two and three.

Goffin Average Return Net Clearance - vs. 1st Serves
• Set 1 = 1.15m
• Set 2 = 0.71m
• Set 3 = 0.93m

Goffin Average Return Net Clearance - vs. 2nd Serves
• Set 1 = 1.02m
• Set 2 = 0.69m
• Set 3 = 0.82m

4. Average Rally Net Clearance
As Goffin’s confidence increased as the match developed, the harder he pounded his ground strokes. An insightful measurement of this dynamic was net clearance. The longer the match went, the lower Goffin played over the net - and the higher Federer was forced to play as a result.

Goffin Average Net Clearance
• Set 1 = 0.75m
• Set 2 = 0.70m
• Set 3 = 0.59m

Federer Average Net Clearance
• Set 1 = 0.63m
• Set 2 = 0.74m
• Set 3 = 0.75m

5. Average Groundstroke Speed
Hitting the ball harder forces more errors, takes precious tenths of seconds away from the opponent’s shot preparation, and creates a better chance of getting the ball past the outstretched racquet of the opponent for a winner. Like most metrics in this match, Goffin improved in the area from start to finish, which forced Federer the other way.

Goffin Average Groundstroke Speed
• Set 1 = 69mph
• Set 2 = 70mph
• Set 3 = 73mph

Federer Average Groundstroke Speed
• Set 1 = 70mph
• Set 2 = 66mph
• Set 3 = 68mph

The scoreboard shows us that Federer started strong, but it was Goffin who took the honours at the end of the match. It’s only when we break down the overall result into specific tactical metrics that we really understand why Goffin ultimately triumphed.

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