© Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour

Rafael Nadal saved two match points against Denis Shapovalov in a three-and-a-half hour battle at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.

The King Of Clay's Gambit: How Nadal Turned Around Shapovalov Epic

How Nadal's mid-match change in tactics spelled the end for Shapovalov

Rafael Nadal was playing Denis Shapovalov the wrong way.

Down a set. Down 0-3, 30/40 serving in the second set. Nothing was clicking for the nine-time Internazionali BNL d'Italia champion. The match was spiraling out of control and he had yet to establish any kind of strategy that he could hang his hat on. The scoreline was scary. The lack of a proven game plan even more so.

And then, at the eleventh hour, the winning tactic manifested itself. It may as well have been Plan F for the Spaniard. Keep searching. Keep looking for the way out of the hole. Why not unleash hell strictly on his opponent’s one-handed backhand?

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Nadal saved two match points en route to defeating Shapovalov 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(3) in three hours and 27 minutes. Locking onto Shapovalov’s backhand wing was what got Nadal over the line more than anything else. Nadal ran 3826 metres to Shapovalov’s 3065 metres for the match. That’s a massive deficit courtesy of an inefficient game plan for a set and half.

In the opening set, Shapovalov hit almost twice as many rally forehands as backhands. That’s bad math for Nadal any way you want to slice it. In the third set, Shapovalov hit more backhands than forehands. That’s got “King of Clay'' stamped all over it. Nadal increasingly went to the backhand to source his points. He avoided going to the forehand unless he could put it under immense pressure.

Shapovalov, Forehand & Backhand Rally Totals - Set By Set

 Set Rally Forehands Rally Backhands
 Set 1  64% (67)  36% (37)
 Set 2  55% (69)  45% (56)
 Set 3  49% (76)  51% (78)

Nadal brought the same intensity to attack the backhand return as well. In the first two sets, first serves to the forehand and backhand were basically even. In the deciding third set, Nadal hit more than twice as many first serves to the backhand (11-5) in the Deuce court.

Nadal, Deuce Court 1st Serve Direction

Set  Wide (to backhand) Body T (to forehand)
 Set 1  7  1  6
 Set 2  5  4  4
 Set 3  11  3  5

Similar metrics evolved hitting first serves in the Ad court as well. Nadal typically loves to hit his carving lefty serve out wide in the Ad court. He had to change that to down the T to attack Shapovalov’s backhand return. In Set 3, eight of 12 Ad court first serves were down the T to the backhand return.

Nadal, Ad Court 1st Serve Direction


Wide (to forehand)

Body T (to backhand)
 Set 1   5  2  4
 Set 2  1  4  5
 Set 3  2  2  8

When Nadal served at 0-3, 0/30 in the second set, he directed a second serve to Shapovalov’s backhand return. It didn’t come back in play. Until this moment in the match, Nadal had only won a jaw-dropping 43 per cent of his first serve points, while Shapovalov was at 72 per cent.

At 0-3, 15/30, he again served to the backhand and received a weak return. He dispatched it for a Serve +1 forehand winner and let out a robust “vamos”. A game plan was forming. He went to the backhand return at 30/30 but lost the point. Shapovalov had a break point for a 4-0 lead and Nadal again went at the Shapovalov backhand return. Shapovalov netted a backhand passing shot to lose the point.

Shapovalov then led 3-1, 40/0 serving, but made four backhand rally errors en route to being broken. The match would last for almost two more hours, but the game plan was now crystal clear in Nadal’s mind.

Hawkeye Innovations - Graphic courtesy of Hawk-Eye Innovations/ATP Media

Shapovalov’s average 1st serve return speed in set one was 101 km/h. It slipped to 98 km/h in set three. An even bigger loss of power came against Nadal’s second serve. The Canadian averaged hitting second serve returns at 122 km/h in set one. That dropped to just 113 km/h in set three, mainly due to Shapovalov placing backhand returns instead of ripping forehand returns.

When your empire is crumbling all around you, find your opponent’s backhand.

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