Djokovic vs Nadal: Key Patterns of PlayPosted: January 28, 2012
With the Nadal-Djokovic final less than 24 hours away, this post will analyse the crucial patterns of play between these two baseline masters.
With Djokovic winning all six of their encounters in 2011, it is fairly safe to say that he has a successful gameplan against Rafa, one which he has put into practice numerous times and which he must have enormous confidence in.
Therefore, this post will focus more on what Nadal can do to counter Djokovic’s gameplan which so clearly has a stranglehold over him, much in the same way as Nadal has had a complete ownership of Roger Federer for so many years.
The Nadal Forehand Down-the-Line:
While Nadal has reigned as undisputed King of Clay for some years now, there have always been doubts over his hard court ability at the highest level when up against a real big hitter on the surface. Due to his long swing on the forehand, players will often target that side with deep, pacey shots, hoping that Nadal will cough up a short ball or an unforced error from that side.
Novak Djokovic is perhaps the player best equipped to pummel the Nadal forehand. Rafa is a lefty,which means that to attack his forehand the ball must be struck towards the left hand side of the court, more easily termed the Ad-court. Djokovic is right handed, therefore his cross-court backhand will go the Ad-court, as will his inside-out forehand. Djokovic hits the backhand cross court better than just about any other player on tour (taking into account movement to that side as well). He has a short take back, sets it up precisely and is extremely consistent. More importantly, his movement when stretched to his backhand is freakishly good, probably even better than Nadal’s. He is rarely forced to take one hand off the racquet and resort to a slice – for the most part he uses his flexibility and speed to slide into the shot, always perfectly on balance with his upper body rotation making errors from this wing very rare.
His inside-out forehand is a much improved shot. Like many other modern players, his extreme western grip and naturally spinny forehand means it is a lot more comfortable to hit with power when he can open up his body on the inside-out shot. He seems to have great confidence in this play against Nadal, and despite the very flat trajectory of the shot, also has a great consistency when hitting it.
All this amounts to Nadal’s forehand wing receiving a jolly good rogering whenever he comes up against the Serbian star. When under attack, Nadal’s natural strategy has always been to use his left handed forehand to hit an extremely spinny shot up high to his opponents backhand: the spin pushes the opponent back further being the baseline, and the height of the shot makes it difficult to attack. For the aforementioned reason of Novak’s backhand being an impregnable fortress, Nadal simply must force himself to hit his forehand down the line, to the Djokovic forehand. It is a far riskier shot (less net clearance and less space to bring the ball up and down), but he has proven in the past that he is capable of executing.
The Nadal Serve:
It is almost a tennis-euphemism to say that spinning a three-quarter pace serve to Novak Djokovic’s backhand is a death wish. Towards the end of the fourth set of their semi-final, Djokovic was hitting winners at will off Murray’s first and second serve. Murray’s first serve is far quicker and stronger than Nadal’s, meaning Rafa will enjoy very little success in trying to coax errors or short balls from the Djokovic backhand by attacking it with the kind of spinny serve usually reserved for drawing an innumerable amount of errors from Roger Federer’s backhand.
Therefore, he will have to abandon his high-percentage strategy in favour of more risky serving. On the ad-side, he can’t keep on trying to slide a slice serve out to Djokovic’s backhand – he must also mix it up with the flat cannon down the T. Likewise on the deuce court, he will have to be able to hit both corners to keep Djokovic off-guard and guessing. A tall order for a man not usually associated with Croatian–level serving, but a vital one nonetheless.
The Djokovic Volley:
Despite an impressive change in attitude in 2011, Djokovic is not a natural volleyer. In his post-match interview after the semi-final clash against Andy Murray, he joked that he was sorry to legendary player Rod Laver (who was in the crowd for the match) for not serve-volleying more, saying that his generation isn’t accustomed to moving forward from the baseline.
Djokovic is correct in that today’s players are pitifully poor in the volleying department compared to the great players of the past. In his relentless pursuit for greatness, Djokovic has ironed out every weakness in his game, improving not only the technical aspect of his volleys and approach shots, but also developing a very positive attitude toward the net game and a healthy sort of humility in his admittance that this is not a strong area of his game.
In an era when Roger Federer, one of the true all-time greats, stubbornly refuses to work on his weaknesses (even when it is resulting in being absolutely dominated by his closest rival), it is refreshing to see a no.1 player who acknowledges and can even laugh about his weaknesses. More importantly though, Djokovic put in the hours on the practice court, honing his volleying technique and improving his reactions at the net. This was combined with Novak coming forward an increasing amount during matches; he didn’t always win the point, but he kept coming, and gradually started to improve to the point where he could competently finish points at the net
This might not seem important when he’s up against Rafael Nadal, a man who has some of the most ferocious passing shots in the history of the game. But it is because of the Spaniard’s incredible defense, speed and anticipation that it becomes vital to have the confidence and the ability to come to the net when Nadal is off balance, and finish the point. Many players lose the confidence to come to the net against Nadal after one-too many spectacular passing shot winners from the Spaniard tends to rips the belief from them. One aspect in which Djokovic has been excellent is in his mentality – he is extremely self assured, calm and does not mind losing the kind of long ‘highlight reel’ points which end up with him passed at the net, Nadal aggressively pumping his fist and shouting Vamos! in his direction and the crowd going crazy on their feet. Where others might become intimidated, frustrated or annoyed, Djokovic will calmly go about his way. Nadal must go outside of his comfort zone to find a way to break Djokovic’s confidence.