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Rafael Nadal has been more aggressive than ever at the Australian Open.

Nadal Strikes First, Asks Questions Later

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers shows how the Spaniard's "first strike" tennis is paying off

The rampaging Spanish bull has reinvented his game Down Under.

The Rafael Nadal who stormed into the 2019 Australian Open semi-finals without dropping a set is cleverly crafting a sizable advantage in the first four shots of the rally much more than we have ever seen before from Nadal.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis comparing the Spaniard Down Under in 2017, where he lost in a thrilling five-set Australian Open final to Roger Federer, to his first five matches in Melbourne this year, identify two vastly different game styles.

The 2017 Rafa had the consistent, grinding “Spanish Method” stamped all over it. His first five matches this year remarkably have seen him play fewer long rallies than the tournament average. Nadal is striking first this year, and asking questions later.

The following comparison identifies how he is constructing many more points in shorter rallies than longer ones compared to 2017.

Rafael Nadal 2017 & 2019 Australian Opens / 2019 Australian Open Tournament Average

Rally Length

2017 Australian Open

2019 Australian Open (First five matches)

2019 Australian Open Tournament Average

0-4 Shots

62%

71%

71%

5-8 Shots

23%

21%

19%

9+ Shots

14%

8%

10%

The percentage shift from 2017 to 2019 is astonishing. The nine percentage-point uptick in shorter points, from 62 per cent to 71 per cent, shows a willingness to fully embrace an aggressive hard-court strategy – not just try and modify his successful clay-court style.

He has almost slashed in half the amount of long rallies he is playing, reducing them from 14 per cent to eight per cent. Why win the point in 13 shots when you can win it in three?

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In his first two rounds against James Duckworth and Matthew Ebden, Nadal won a total of 200 points, with only 10 of them (5% total points won) coming in the nine-plus rally length. His average rally length to the semi-finals has been just 3.7 shots, which is slightly shorter than his semi-final opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is averaging 3.73 shots.

Competitive Advantage
Nadal is playing more shorter points, and correspondingly, carving out a much bigger advantage in points won and lost in the zero-to-four shot rally length. It’s one thing to just play a lot of shorter points, but Nadal is actually thriving against his opponents in shorter points, winning almost 100 more points than he has lost (344 won - 249 lost = +95) in the zero-to-four shot rally length.

Points Won / Lost At Each Rally Length vs Opponent

Rally Length

2017 Australian Open

2019 Australian Open (First five matches)

0-4 Shots

+52

+95

5-8 Shots

+24

+30

9+ Shots

+39

+14

The added advantage of a more urgent game style for the Spaniard is that a “first strike” strategy provides less wear and tear on his body. To the semi-final, the Spaniard had played only 70 points in the nine-plus shot rally length, while Tsitsipas has played 120.

Rafa is back to peak form, and will arrive fresher into the semi-final courtesy of his upgraded hard-court strategy. A fresh bull is always more dangerous than a wounded one.

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