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Rafael Nadal's backhand played a key role in the Spaniard winning his 30th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title on Sunday.

Brain Game: The Five Keys To Nadal's Fifth Madrid Title

The Spaniard had everything working in the Spanish capital

All he does is win.

Rafael Nadal defeated Dominic Thiem 7-6(8), 6-4 in the Mutua Madrid Open final, moving to 15-0 on clay this season, with every aspect of his game operating like a well-oiled machine. Nadal's dominance was felt all over the court, but the following five areas were where he specifically created his separation.

Long Rallies

Overall, Nadal won nine more points than Thiem for the match (88 to 79). The Spaniard more than accounted for that margin just in the longer rallies of 10 shots or more, winning 12 more points (20-8) than Thiem in this specific area.

The long rallies also served the purpose of fatiguing Thiem both physically and mentally, especially after such a grueling opening set that included 96 points. Fifty six per cent of total points for the match were played in the “First Strike” zero-to-four rally length, with Thiem having the slight edge, 46-44.

Thiem also won the mid-length rally length of five to nine shots, 22-21, but it was the 17 per cent of total points in the “Extended Rallies” of greater than nine shots where Nadal crafted his edge.


Nadal's backhand typically takes on the role of a defensive shield from the back of the court, yielding as few mistakes as possible, while his forehand dictates much more. But against Thiem, Nadal hit eight backhand winners, often times from spectacular defensive positions.

At 6/6 in the first set tie-break, Nadal ignited the Spanish crowd with an almost impossible short angle backhand winner from deep outside the doubles alley that landed in the cross-court service box.

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Serve & Volley

Nadal served and volleyed three times in the match, winning all three points at critical stages. All of them were out wide first serves in the Ad court, catching Thiem standing way back in his comfort zone, very deep behind the baseline to return. Serving and volleying on clay, against a returner who sets up extremely deep, is a very clever play to instantly change the dynamic of the point.

Nadal did it first at 4-4, 30/15 in the opening set, with Thiem's backhand return not making it over the net. The next time was at 0-1, 30/15 in the second set, with another backhand return error made from deep behind the baseline.

The final time was in the last game of the match, with Nadal serving down break point at 5-4, 30/40. The return floated wide, and Nadal safely moved back to deuce. Thiem also served and volleyed five times in the match, winning three.

Drop Shots

Nadal hit nine drop shots for the match, winning six of them. He primarily used the drop shot when he saw Thiem camped out well behind the baseline, taking advantage of the Austrian's deep court position by suddenly going short. Five of the six points Nadal won with the drop shot were clean winners, all struck from either right on the baseline or slightly inside.

Drop shots are very much a secondary pattern of play. But for Nadal, they cleverly complement his deep, heavy groundstrokes by providing another part of the court the opponent has to respect.

Serve +1 Forehands

Both players were fervently looking to hit a forehand as the first shot after the serve, maintaining as much offense as possible to begin the point.

Total Serve +1 Forehands

• Nadal 74% (45/61)

• Thiem 87% (48/55)

Nadal won 58 per cent (26/45) when he started the point with a Serve +1 forehand, and 69 per cent (11/16) when he started the point with a Serve +1 backhand combination. Thiem won 54 per cent (26/48) of the points that started with a Serve +1 forehand, and 57 per cent (4/7) beginning with a Serve +1 backhand.

The three big advantages of hitting a forehand over a backhand as the first shot after the serve: 1) upgrade to a more powerful groundstroke; 2) be better able to attack all parts of the court; and 3) to disguise the shot better with the open stance, robbing the opponent of precious tenths of seconds to anticipate where the ball is going.

Thiem started the match more aggressively and led 3-2 with a break, mainly due to his pounding forehand. After the first five games, Thiem's average forehand speed was faster than Nadal's (137kmh to 124kmh), and he even had more spin on the ball as well (3507rpm to 3417rpm). The average forehand speed slowed as the match progressed, with Thiem averaging 126kmh to 114kmh for Nadal.

Nadal’s game ticked every possible box today at the Magic Box.

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