Brain Game: As Nadal Looked Right, Djokovic Attacked Left
Unleash on the strength. Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in the final of the Australian Open Sunday evening by doing exactly what conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t do – play to your opponent’s best shot.
It should be a misprint, but Nadal, who had won 59 per cent of his baseline points coming into the final, only won 29.5 per cent (26/88) of his baseline points against the Super Serbian. Djokovic completely dismantled Nadal’s baseline game by going hard after his forehand.
Nadal had hit 100 forehand winners and 116 forehand errors to the final, but that ratio didn’t hold true against the World No. 1 on Sunday night at Melbourne Park. Nadal struck 11 forehand winners in the final, but committed 28 forehand errors as Djokovic constantly played wide through the Ad court to attack Nadal’s running forehand.
The theory is simple. Nadal is the best player in the world at running around his backhand in the Deuce court and upgrading to a more potent forehand. With Nadal always looking to protect to the right, Djokovic attacked to the left.
Superb from the Serbian. The first step was to break the forehand down. Then it was to double down on an overloaded backhand. Nadal had 33 backhand winners in six matches to the final, but struck just three against Djokovic while committing 21 errors.
Step two accomplished. It’s exactly the same demolition sequence at every level of our sport. Break down the forehand, then the backhand, and the serve will quickly become overheated.
Nadal made just 64 per cent first serves in the final, compared to 69 per cent leading into it. Nadal had won 81 per cent of first-serve points to the final, but that fell off a cliff to just 51 per cent against Djokovic.
If you can break down the forehand, the backhand, and then the serve, the match sits on a platter for the taking. Everywhere Nadal turned, he found a Serbian brick wall. The Spaniard was -14 in short rallies of zero-to-four shots against Djokovic, and -15 in the longer rallies of nine-plus.
Short didn’t work, and neither did long. Unfortunately for the Spaniard, he had nowhere to turn to to formulate a winning plan.
Rally Length - 2019 Australian Open Final
0-4 Shots = Djokovic 49 / Nadal 35 (Djokovic +14)
5-8 Shots = Djokovic 18 / Nadal 11 (Djokovic +7)
9+ Shots = Djokovic 22 / Nadal 7 (Djokovic +15)
The average rally length for the final was 5.03 shots, with Djokovic taking the honours everywhere you looked. He faced only one break point in the final, which he saved, while Nadal faced eight, losing five of them.
What bites hard for the Spaniard is that he made four first serves on the five break break points he lost, highlighting how Djokovic consistently turned defence into offence in the final.
Nadal had been dominant against second serves to the final, including winning a dominant 70 per cent against Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi-finals. That number fell off a cliff in the final, as the Spaniard won only three of 19 second-serve points against Djokovic.
It’s now three Slams in a row, and the clock is still running.
Editor's Note: Craig O'Shannessy is a member of Novak Djokovic's coaching team.