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Novak Djokovic flew to a sixth Miami title.

Brain Game: First-Strike Dominance The Key For Djokovic

Brain Game explains how Novak Djokovic dominated rallies of four shots or less in beating Kei Nishikori

Novak Djokovic is a first-strike master masquerading as an aggressive baseliner. Djokovic defeated Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-3 in the final of the Miami Open presented by Itau by completely dominating the most abundant rally length in our sport: 0-4 shots.

The world marvels at Djokovic’s shot tolerance, indestructible defence and his ability to outlast opponents. Those are all very commendable qualities, but don’t directly speak to the essence of his global domination nearly as much as his uncanny ability to dismantle opponents before a rally develops.

Nishikori started hot, breaking Djokovic in the opening game, and in the first five games, had won all five rallies that were at least nine shots or longer.

It was inconsequential.

Exactly two of every three points (72/109) in the match developed into a baseline battle, with Djokovic winning an extremely high 63 per cent of them. The majority of these points were shorter, rather than longer, providing a hidden advantage for the World No. 1.

First Four Shots
You would think longer rallies would be a key battleground between these two back-court gladiators, but ultimately only 15 per cent of all points reached nine shots or longer.

In the opening set, Djokovic won a commanding 70 per cent (16/23) of first-strike points. As a comparison, he won just 57 per cent of the 0-4 rally length through seven rounds to win the Australian Open earlier this year.

Rally Length


Djokovic Points Won
Nishikori Points Won

0-4 shots

"First Strike"

34 (64%)
19 (36%)
53 (49%)

5-8 shots

"Patterns of Play"
24 (62%)
15 (38%)
39 (36%)
9+ shots
"Extended Rallies"
7 (41%)
10 (59%)
17 (15%)

Power & Court Position
After the first five games in the Miami final, with Nishikori serving at 2-3, the Japanese star was crushing backhands on average of 76mph. That was 10mph faster than Djokovic’s 66mph.

It’s a commendable tactic, but Nishikori ended up with just two backhand winners for the match to the Serb’s six. It’s not how hard you hit it. It’s where you hit it from.

Djokovic weaves his wicked spell early in the point, quickly outmaneuvering opponents with superior depth, and forcing them to miss at an alarming rate. Nishikori’s powerful groundstrokes were effectively nullified in this match by where the Serb forced the Japanese to make contact with the ball.

In the previous rounds leading up to the Miami final, Nishikori hit 26 per cent of his shots inside the baseline, representing aggressive groundstroke court position, plus a healthy amount of points at the net. With Djokovic leading, 6-3, 2-0 in the final, Nishikori’s normally solid court position was nowhere to be seen. The Japanese’s shots inside the baseline had been cut in half by the the Serb - from 26 per cent leading up to the final, to just 13 per cent as he trailed by a set and a break.

This is where the riddle of the World No. 1 is so hard to solve.

Nishikori will admit it was not one of better matches, but it’s always tough to put a finger on exactly why your “A” game didn’t turn up on the big stage. Djokovic has mastered the art of forcing opponents to play a level or two below their best, while at the same time, discreetly dominating the all-important 0-4 shot rally length.

Outlasting Djokovic is not the answer, as he clearly does not beat himself, and there are not enough points played in extended rallies to accumulate enough to win a match. It’s the first line of attack - the first two shots of a rally for each player - that matter the most. If you can’t win the first four shots against the World No. 1, you may as well grab the ball and hit it into stands.

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