© Peter Staples/ATP Tour

Rafael Nadal is adjusting his tactics in the cold and damp conditions of early autumn at Roland Garros.

So, The Cold Doesn’t Suit Rafa? Big Data Says Otherwise

Here’s why Rafael Nadal remains the favourite to win a 13th Roland Garros title

Rafael Nadal’s primary weapon on a hot summer’s day in Paris is to make the ball jump up high with vicious spin to his opponent’s backhand. It’s now autumn in the northern hemisphere, where the weather is cold and damp at Roland Garros, so the World No. 2 is strategically switching gears to another trusted asset in his arsenal: extending the rally.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of rally length in the first round this year compared to 2017 when Roland Garros was played in much hotter conditions uncovers that the ‘First Strike’ rally length of 0-4 shots has plummeted in the cold weather. A significant amount of points are spilling over to the mid-length rallies of 5-8 shots, and extended rallies of nine shots of greater.

Roland Garros: Rally Length: 2017 (hotter) vs 2020 Rd 1 (colder)

Rally Length 2017 2020 First Round
0-4 Shots 71% 53%
5-8 Shots 19% 29%
9+ Shots 10% 18%

It was a hot summer in 2017 in Paris, which helped the ball race through the air and become more menacing at the beginning of the point. Seventy-one per cent of all points were played in the 0-4 shot rally length, which was considerably higher than the 53 per cent (4785/8994) in round one this year. The 2020 data set is comprised of 40/64 first-round matches that were played on show courts, where rally length data was collected.

Which brings us to Nadal.

Pre-tournament, the Spaniard spoke warily of the heavy conditions and the heavier ball that would blunt the ferocious spin he uses to take the battle up high around the shoulders of his opponents.

Nadal may very well struggle to hurt opponents with spin and height as in previous years, but with the length of the rallies becoming significantly longer because of the colder conditions, Nadal is merely exchanging one weapon for another.

Through his first four matches at Roland Garros this year, against Egor Gerasimov, Mackenzie McDonald, Stefano Travaglia and Sebastian Korda, Nadal is a one-man wrecking crew once the rally moves past the 0-4 shot rally length with a fifth ball in the court.

Nadal: Through 2020 Roland Garros 4th Rd.

Rally Length Won Total Win %
0-4 Shots 171 283 60%
5-8 Shots 105 161 65%
9+ Shots 63 97 65%

Nadal has impressive metrics at all three rally lengths, but they get better as the rally gets longer.

Nadal was best-in-class on the ATP Tour from 2018-2020 in mid-length rallies of 5-8 shots, winning 60 per cent (652/1092) of those points. He is at 65 per cent won through the fourth round this year in Paris. Nadal won 55 per cent (412/745) of 9-plus rallies in the same period, which was good for fifth best on Tour. To see him at 65 per cent in his first four matches on Court Philippe-Chatrier this week should stop people in their tracks.

Good luck hitting high backhands against Nadal in Paris on a 30-degree Celsius afternoon in mid-summer. What is proving even more challenging is trying to outlast and outwork the Spaniard in cold and heavy Parisian conditions in late September.