The Surprising Stat About Nadal's Roland Garros Domination
Why don’t we practise exactly what happens in a match?
Statistics in tennis were first recorded in 1991, and have only in the past few years become more accepted and integrated into our sport. We still obsess about consistency, even though a stats sheet undeniably shows shorter rallies greatly outnumber longer ones, and have more weight in determining who wins the match.
What if we reversed the traditional relationship between the practice court and match court?
Typically, we focus on shot tolerance, patience and persistence on the practice court, attempting to create a winning advantage in long rallies. But is that really how the match court is organised? Even for Rafael Nadal on clay?
No, it’s not. Not even close.
An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of rally length at Roland Garros from 2013-2019 clearly identifies that the most abundant rally lengths have far few touches of the ball than we realise. The data set includes 571 matches totaling 111,041 points.
If you were to let match statistics be the driving force of how you organise the practice court, it would look very different than the current landscape. The following breakdown identifies the five most common rally lengths, which are also broken down into a winner or an error at the end of the point.
1. One-Shot Rally Ending In An Error = 19.4%
The No. 1 way a point ends at Roland Garros – by a country mile – is a return error. It is exactly double the next most abundant rally length.
The greatest irony in our sport is that the return of serve is the least-practised shot in our sport, yet it is the most common rally length.
Practice Court Focus: Focus on returning deep down the middle of the court. Take the sidelines out of play, which also brings the ball back to the middle of the court. Be more defensive vs. first serves and more aggressive against second serves.
2. Two-Shot Rally Ending In An Error = 9.7%
The serve went in, the return came back, but the server missed the next shot. This specific Serve +1 groundstroke is pressured by both power from the return and a lack of time to get prepared.
Practice Court Focus: Hit a serve and have your coach feed the return out of the hand. Feed it deep and hard right down the middle of the court. The goal is not to miss. Even hitting a slower defensive shot right back down the middle of the court works just fine.
3. Three-Shot Rally Ending In An Error = 9.5%
This specific shot is called Return +1. What typically happens here is the server made a first serve, received a shorter ball back and attacked with a Serve +1 forehand. Most times, the server is going to initially target the returner’s backhand on the run.
Practice Court Focus: Run this identical pattern. Hit a return and then have the coach feed the ball hard and wide to the backhand corner. Defence goes crosscourt, so make the ball back cross with either a slice backhand or a blocking backhand.
4. Three-Shot Rally Ending In A Winner = 6.9%
This is a classic Serve +1 forehand following behind a powerful first serve.
Practice Court Focus: Put a target out in a corner of the service box and aim at it. Have the return of serve fed back short, which will be the typical result. The returner will be thinking the Serve +1 forehand is going to the backhand, so definitely mix in going for a winner wide to the forehand as well.
5. Four-Shot Rally Ending In An Error = 6.1%
This is the third shot of the rally for the server.
Practice Court Focus: Hit a serve, then a Serve +1 groundstroke. The balancing act for the next shot is to try and maintain control of the point without overhitting. Focus more on depth and spin instead of power and direction. Don’t beat yourself with this building shot.
The common rally lengths in our sport are always the shorter ones, even on clay. When is the first time a double-digit rally shows up? It’s a 10-shot rally ending in an error. It’s the 19th most common way a point ends, occurring just 1.3 per cent of the time.
Through Nadal’s first four matches at Roland Garros this year to the quarter-finals, the most abundant rally length he has played is a one-shot rally, which occurred 21.4 per cent (139/651) of the time. The most abundant double-digit rally was 10 shots, but there were only 13 of them, occurring just two per cent of the time.
Let the match court be the guiding light for your practice court.