Brain Game: Rafa’s Boisterous Backhand Steals The Show
Normally, it’s Rafael Nadal’s run-around forehand that steals the spotlight as he prodigiously racks up titles in Monte-Carlo. Not so today. This time it was the backhand that stole the show.
Nadal defeated Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-2, crushing a backhand winner cross-court on match point to notch a record 11th victory at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. The scorching backhand was the perfect icing on the cake.
Nishikori’s strategic intentions to attack Nadal’s backhand was obvious early on, as the Spaniard hit 17 in his opponent’s opening service game of the match. Nadal committed three backhand errors in that game, but would then successfully make 26 consecutive backhands to find himself leading 5-2 in the opening set.
The insurmountable lead was built with backhands.
Nadal’s backhand did not buckle once for five straight games from 1-1 to 5-2, laying the foundation for the stunning victory. In the opening set, Nadal hit 65 rally backhands. That total does not count returns, volleys or overheads, but does include approach shots.
Those 65 backhands were supported by just 25 run-around forehands from the Deuce court. In many of Nadal’s matches, he actually hits more run-around forehands than backhands, but not today. He trusted his backhand, and it delivered more sparkling silverware.
Overall for the match, Nadal hit 87 (73 per cent) rally backhands and just 33 (27 per cent) run-around forehands. Nadal’s backhand accounted for five winners and just seven errors over two sets. That means he averaged a backhand error one out of every 12 shots. Simply outstanding for a shot that was supposed to be under attack.
On the forehand side, the Spaniard hit 102 rally forehands, committing 13 errors, for an average of one error out of every eight forehands. The backhand clearly outperformed the forehand on Sunday on the red clay by the sea.
Nishikori actually won the longer, extended rallies of 9+ shots by a tally of 10-6. The only problem was that it didn’t represent a large enough grouping of points to make a difference. Nadal won the short rallies of 0-4 shots 34-19, and the mid-length rallies of 5-8 shots 23-15. It’s important to understand that if a maximum of just four shots were struck by either player, Nadal crafted a massive 23-point advantage (57-34).
Nadal’s forehand spread Nishikori to the edges of the court, with 57 per cent of Nadal’s forehand in the first set going wide to Nishikori’s backhand, and 43 per cent directed wide to the forehand wing. Amazingly, Nadal did not land one single forehand in the opening set in the middle third of the court.
In previous rounds to the final, Nadal had hit 61 per cent of his forehands cross court and just 39 per cent down the line. That’s a normal, high percentage mix for any of the competitors at Monte-Carlo this week.
But in the opening set on Sunday, Nadal hit more forehands down the line than cross court, signaling just how confident he was with this specific shot. He hit 56 per cent of his forehands down the line in the opening set, and just 44 per cent cross court.
The backhand was an immovable rock. The forehand was flung down the line at will. Nadal is arguably playing the best clay court tennis of his life.