© ATP Tour/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal is a 13-time Roland Garros champion.

Paris Power Play: Nadal's 'Halo Effect'

Learn how three-shot rallies are key for the Spaniard

At what rally length does Rafael Nadal strike the most winners at Roland Garros? Conversely, at what rally length do opponents commit the most errors against the Spanish star?

It feels like Nadal overwhelmingly builds the point with a succession of heavily gyrating groundstrokes before finally dispatching the inevitable short ball for a winner to the vacant open court. It also feels like opponent errors are usually a result of a patient escalation of control in the point until Nadal’s power, spin, height, and depth become overwhelming.

Right? Wrong.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers rally analysis of Nadal’s winners and his opponent’s errors (forced and unforced) from Roland Garros last year identifies that the majority of his winners and his opponent’s errors are front-loaded in the point much more than we ever thought.

Nadal’s Serve +1 Winners
Nadal struck more winners on the third shot of the rally than at any other rally length at Roland Garros in 2020. Nadal hit 45 winners on the third shot of the rally, which means his serve went in, the return came back in play, and his ensuing Serve +1 forehand or backhand was dispatched for a winner. No building of the point there. It’s very much about utilising the halo effect of the serve and pairing it with a lethal Serve +1 forehand. That has been the most brutal “one-two” combination in our sport for some time.

For example, in 2010 Nadal hit 83 per cent (56/77) forehands as the first shot after the serve in the Roland Garros final against Robin Soderling. In the 2012 championship match, he hit 80 per cent (63/78) Serve +1 forehands against Novak Djokovic, and 59 per cent (37/63) against David Ferrer in the 2013 final. He won all three matches.

2020 Roland Garros - Nadal Winners By Rally Length

Shot In The Rally

Nadal Winners

3rd Shot

45

5th Shot

37

9+ Odd Shots

29

10+ Even Shots

25

Serve

16

4th Shot

16

6th Shot

15

7th Shot

14

 8th Shot  7
 Return  6

The halo effect of the serve typically lasts for two shots, and that dynamic is exactly what we see in play here. Nadal hits the most winners with his Serve +1 shot (three-shot rally) and his Serve +2 shot (five-shot rally). Long rallies that are odd-numbered are clustered together in nine or more shots, with the same occurring for 10 or more shots with even rallies. Nadal hit the most Serve +1 winners at Roland Garros in 2020 in the second round against Mackenzie McDonald with 10. He struck eight against Novak Djokovic in the final.

Opponent Errors (Forced+Unforced)
When Nadal served, errors flowed freely from his opponent’s racquet. The Spaniard collected 93 return errors at the beginning of the point, with the third shot of the rally grossing the second highest total with 65 errors.

2020 Roland Garros - Nadal Winners By Rally Length

Shot In The Rally

Opponent Errors

Return

93

3rd Shot

65

5th Shot

56

10+ Even Shots

55

4th Shot

50

9+ Odd Shots

44

7th Shot

32

8th Shot

32

6th Shot

31

Serve

16

Combined Winners and Errors
Three-shot rallies jump to the top of the table when you add Nadal’s winners with opponent errors (forced and unforced). This rally length is the beating heart of his clay-court prowess. Return errors and rallies ending on the third and fifth shot led the three rally lengths where Nadal won the most points. One, three, and five-shot rallies stand head and shoulders above six, seven, and eight-shot rallies in points won for the Spaniard.

Nadal Winners + Opponent Errors At Roland Garros 2020 by Rally Length

Shot In The Rally

Nadal Points Won (winners + opponent errors)

3rd Shot

110

Return

99

5th Shot

93

10+ Even Shots

80

9+ Odd Shots

73

4th Shot

66

6th Shot

46

7th Shot

46

8th Shot

39

Serve

32

Opponents Winning Points vs. Nadal
Similar match metrics occurred for opponents collecting points against Nadal at Roland Garros last year. Opponents hit the most winners against the Spaniard (30) on the third shot of the rally. They extracted the most errors from him on the fourth shot of the rally (46), followed closely by return errors with 45.

This year, feast your eyes once again on the long, lactic-acid-inducing rallies that Nadal invariably gets into with his opponents on Court Philippe Chatrier. But also keep a watchful eye out for his lethal Serve +1 combination, which will deliver more winners than any of the longer rally lengths.

Nadal wows us with the long, but goes to the bank with the short.