Brain Game

Djokovic's Key Against Ruud To Earn Tennis Immortality

Brain Game analyses the Roland Garros final
June 11, 2023
Novak Djokovic defeats Casper Ruud in straight sets to win the Roland Garros title for the third time.
Peter Staples/ATP Tour
Novak Djokovic defeats Casper Ruud in straight sets to win the Roland Garros title for the third time. By Craig O'Shannessy

The first set was the match.

Novak Djokovic defeated Casper Ruud 7-6(1) 6-3, 7-5 in the Roland Garros final on Sunday by withstanding a brutal onslaught in the opening set that left the Super Serbian doubled over in exhaustion after only nine games.

Djokovic was tight, and the ball was consistently out of his strike zone. Ruud was playing perfectly, and Djokovic was struggling mightily. Playing when tight extracts an immeasurable amount of extra energy from the body. Djokovic was not his usual self, yet he somehow found a way to win one of the greatest sets in Grand Slam final history.

Ruud led 4-1 in the opening set and had Djokovic on the proverbial ropes. The Norwegian could not finish what he started. Djokovic broke back trailing 2-4 by extracting two forehand errors and two backhand errors. He saved a break point at 3-4, 30/40, and finally ran away with the tie-break 7/1. It was a brutal set that quite possibly only Djokovic could have found a way to the finish line in.

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Djokovic stole the opening set by completely dominating the 0-4 rally length.

Set 1: Rally Length

  • 0-4 Shots: Djokovic 30/Ruud 12 (Djokovic +18)
  • 5-8 Shots: Djokovic 7/Ruud 17 (Djokovic -10)
  • 9+ Shots: Djokovic 10/Ruud 12 (Djokovic -2)

Djokovic created a substantial 18-point advantage in the opening set in the 0-4 shot rally length, winning 30 points, while losing 12. The longer the rally went, the more it favoured Ruud. The shorter the rally length, the more Djokovic got to breathe and recover to fight another day.

The average rally length in the opening set was a bruising 6.3 shots, which was much longer than the 4.9 shots in set two and 4.5 shots in set three. The primary tactic to finish points quickly for the Serbian was to go immediately to the net.

Djokovic Net Points Won

  • Set 1=11/15
  • Set 2=4/6
  • Set 3=5/6

Djokovic had to seek the refuge of the net in the opening set to avoid longer rallies where he lost more points than he won. Djokovic started tight, missing two drop shots in the opening return game, and a simple overhead in the next game that made him play more defensively than normal.

Against Alcaraz in the semi-finals, Djokovic could use the power of his opponent’s groundstrokes back against him. Against Ruud, the ball was slower and higher out of the strike zone, and Djokovic struggled to do anything to hurt his opponent. Combined with his tightness, Djokovic was expending maximum energy, and the ball was going anywhere.

Djokovic won 43 per cent (26/60) of baseline points in the opening set, while Ruud won 48 per cent (29/61). Djokovic and Ruud both hit 15 winners in the opening set, but that would signal the end of Ruud’s aggression in the match. Ruud only hit seven winners in the second set and nine in the third. By comparison, Djokovic ramped up his aggression, striking 15 winners in set two and a substantial 22 winners in the third set.

The shot that grew in importance for Djokovic was his forehand.

Djokovic Forehand Winners

  • Set 1 = 8 winners/13 errors = -5
  • Set 2 = 8 winners/8 errors = 0
  • Set 3 = 12 winners/8 errors = +4

The average rally length for the final was a substantial 5.4 shots, and once Djokovic got the first set under his belt, it was his aggressive forehand that he rode to victory.

Djokovic now stands alone with 23 Grand Slam titles. The opening set of today’s final may very well be one of the toughest physically and mentally he has ever had to withstand.

The reward is tennis immortality.

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