© ATP World Tour/Peter Staples

How Djokovic defeated the King of Clay

Brain Game: Djokovic Pushes And Pulls

It’s not often you see 14 drop shots in a set of tennis. It’s also not often that you see Rafael Nadal lose at Roland Garros.
Novak Djokovic triumphed 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 over Nadal in their quarter-final clash, primarily by pushing him back with raw power, and then pulling him forward with finesse and touch.
The first set meant everything to the final outcome, and that’s exactly where the Serb’s successful yo-yo tactics took charge. Djokovic got off to a flyer, winning 16 of the first 20 points of the match to race to a 4-0 lead.
It was classic French theatre early on, with Djokovic pulling all the strings of the marionette. He forced Nadal to play far behind the baseline because of his superior power and depth, and then pulled him right up to the net out of his comfort zone.
Djokovic hit 10 drop shots in the opening set, winning seven, with the first one coming on the second point of the match. He was not about to play Nadal on the Spaniard's terms on his favourite court.
Nadal also hit four drop shots in the first set, with the two he won both gutsy backhands down the line to save set points serving at 5-6, Ad Out. Talk about poise under pressure. 
Of the 14 combined drop shots, 10 were backhands down the line, one backhand crosscourt, and three from the forehand side. The backhand down the line tactic offers excellent disguise, with the racquet angle being changed and hidden behind the body.
Djokovic’s push-and-pull strategy worked perfectly to begin the match, and then Nadal finally found his range at 0-4 with better depth and penetration.  Nadal seized the momentum, winning 19 of the next 26 points, and amazingly it was all square at 4-4. 
As often happens in tennis matches at all levels of the game, the player who leads early must absorb the tactical change, and then successfully regroups to finish off the set. Djokovic was right on cue.

Djokovic Controlled Mid-Length Rallies 
Djokovic’s huge advantage came in rallies of 5-8 shots, where he won a substantial 70 per cent (36/51) of points. Just over 50 per cent (52%) of all points for the match ended in the first four shots, 29 per cent in the 4-8 shot range which Djokovic dominated, and only 18 per cent were extended to at least nine shots or longer. The mix was straight out of the Djokovic/Becker playbook. 
Djokovic also won the other two rally lengths, winning short rallies 49-41 and extended rallies 17-15, but it was the mid-length encounters where his patterns of play proved superior.
Nadal has owned the baseline at Roland Garros for almost a decade, but could only manage to win 37 per cent (41/112) of his baseline points against Djokovic. The Serb’s superior tactics enabled him to be more than 20 percentage points higher than Nadal at the baseline, winning 59 per cent (59/100). These are numbers the sport has never seen from a Nadal clay court match in Paris.

Biggest Shot = Djokovic Forehand
Right from the outset, Djokovic owned the back of the court with his ferocious forehand, constantly crushing it from around the baseline, making Nadal defend wide, and run hard to stay in points. Djokovic hit 23 forehand winners over three sets, while Nadal could only manage three. Nadal’s forehand simply isn’t performing at the level we are used to seeing it, with 17 unforced errors constantly stopping him from working his way back into the match. 

Djokovic Finishing Forward
Djokovic also feasted at the net, courtesy of powerful groundstrokes that Nadal repeatedly hit back short, inviting the Serb to come forward. Djokovic won 69 per cent (25/36) at net, and probably could have followed another 20 big groundstrokes to the net as well. Nadal’s poor baseline numbers didn’t get any better coming forward, as he only won 46 per cent (11/24) at the net. There was nowhere on the court for the Spaniard to mine a successful strategy.

Djokovic Serve Location
Djokovic had a very solid day at the office serving, making 63 per cent first serves, winning 76 per cent of them, and winning a very high 60 per cent on second serves (Nadal won 38 per cent). Djokovic served better in the Ad Court, making 67 per cent of his first serves there, compared to 59 per cent in the deuce court. In the Ad Court, Djokovic served 12 times down the centre to Nadal’s backhand, six at the body and eight out wide to the forehand, winning 73 per cent. In the deuce court, he primarily served to the backhand, with 10 sliding out wide, eight down the middle, and six at the body - for a commanding win rate of 79 per cent. 
Djokovic will now play an in-form Andy Murray in the semi-finals. Time to enjoy this sweet victory will be short-lived.

Craig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Read more at www.braingametennis.com.