© AFP/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic 53-25 in the “First Strike” 0-4 shot rally length in the Roland Garros final.

How Nadal's First-Strike Strategy Smothered Djokovic

Learn how the "Serve +1" played a key role for the Spaniard

The first shot after the serve is called “Serve +1” and it’s precisely where Rafael Nadal buried Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s Roland Garros final.

Nadal defeated Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 by stamping his authority at the beginning of the rally much more than grinding the Serbian down in longer exchanges. The lopsided scoreline suggests Nadal dominated all statistical facets of the final, but he only crafted a one-point advantage (53-52) once the rally was five shots or longer.

Nadal crushed Djokovic 53-25 in the “First Strike” 0-4 shot rally length, with the third shot of the rally being by far the most influential. Overall, the point ended 32 times on the third shot of the rally, which was considerably more than any other rally length for the match.

Serve +1 Performance (3-shot rallies)

Nadal
• 8 winners
• 1 unforced error

Djokovic
• 6 winners
• 1 forced error
•16 unforced errors

Nadal’s impenetrable defensive skills saw him commit just one Serve +1 error, while Djokovic yielded a combined 17 forced and unforced. As a side note, Nadal is always bringing some type of pressure to his opponents’ shot, so the “unforced” label against Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier in a Roland Garros final is somewhat of a stretch.

Djokovic only won 50 per cent (33/66) of his first-serve points and 48 per cent (16/33) of second-serve points for the match, while being broken seven times. The 17 Serve+1 errors had a lot to do with that.

Djokovic Errors When Serving
• Shot 1 (Double fault) = 4
• Shot 3 (Serve +1) = 17
• Shot 5 = 6
• Shot 7 = 3
• Shots 9+ = 7

Quite simply, Djokovic committed his most errors (17) for the match in a three-shot rally, while Nadal collected his most winners (8). The decisive contrast that existed between the two players manifested itself right here.

Groundstroke Performance
Nadal used his forehand like a heavy, stone-cutting hammer, constantly battering away through the Ad court up high to Djokovic’s backhand. It was an unrelenting strategy that fueled his baseline engine.

Nadal (including passing shots / approach shots / drop shots)

• Forehand = 17 winners / 11 errors = +6
• Backhand = 7 winners / 9 errors = -2
• Total = 24 winners / 20 errors

Djokovic (including passing shots / approach shots / drop shots)
• Forehand = 10 winners / 25 errors = -15
• Backhand = 13 winners / 35 errors = -22
• Total = 23 winners / 60 errors

When you compare all groundstroke winners to errors, Nadal’s forehand and backhand come out at +4 (24 winners / 20 errors). Djokovic’s numbers seem from a different match, as he ended up at -37 (23 winners / 60 errors).

In their last Grand Slam encounter, Djokovic defeated Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in the 2019 Australian Open final by initially rallying to Nadal’s backhand and then attacking the Spaniard’s forehand out wide in the Ad court. Starting with the first few points of Sunday’s final, you could sense Nadal had an answer for that tactic, which was to put Djokovic in the “backhand cage”.

Nadal controlled the flow of baseline exchanges with his forehand, spinning it up as high as he could to Djokovic’s backhand, which gained him initial control of the point. After just a couple of minutes, Nadal’s game plan was obvious while Djokovic had no counter, which should have been to upgrade to more run-around forehands. The Serbian would fall behind two sets and a break (3-2) in the third set before finally breaking Nadal’s serve for the first time in the match to level at three games all.

Ultimately, Djokovic overplayed the drop shot and struggled to find a consistent Serve +1 strategy. The clarity of game plan was obvious for Nadal. For Djokovic, he could never latch onto that one tactic that could be repeated enough to take a set. Nadal simply out-thought and out-played the World No. 1.