After the first seven games of last weekend’s Monte Carlo Masters semifinal, it appeared as though Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were in the opening stages of a potentially epic collision.
And I don’t use that word lightly. The two best clay court players on planet earth were producing rallies of tremendously high quality, with point after point ending with winners. Each man had brought their highest level to the table which, of course, was necessary to win a match of such high stature.
But after an extremely long seventh game, which saw Djokovic hold serve after facing multiple break points, Nadal was immediately broken and, before you could blink, Djokovic had won the set, 6-3. The second set was also largely decided by the seventh game, where Nadal held a 40-0 lead on his own serve, but was unable to finish it off and was out of the tournament two games later.
Many expected Djokovic to win this match. He was the odds-maker’s favorite. Nadal, usually quick to expel the notion that he is the favorite in any event that he enters, was the underdog for the first time in a clay court match since the 2006 Monte Carlo final, where he beat then-favorite Roger Federer.
Going into the match, I, too, expected Djokovic to win relatively comfortably. Djokovic has now won the Australian Open and all three Masters Series 1000 titles held in 2015. There is little doubt who the best player in the world is right now. Djokovic has the biggest lead any No. 1 player has had over a No. 2 in ATP history. Nadal, by stark contrast, is not playing at the level we have seen from him in years past. While this is concerning, the fact that Djokovic has taken such an upper-hand strategically should be equally concerning to Nadal and his team. Even if the Spaniard was playing near or at the level that carried him to nine of the last ten French Open titles, he would still be up against it when facing Djokovic these days.
Let’s take a look at some of the strategical intricacies of their rivalry in order to better understand why the Serbian has won five of their last six matches — four of them in resounding fashion.
1. Return of Serve and Directionals
Djokovic’s second serve has evolved into a legitimate weapon over the last several years; once a liability, it is one of the most underrated shots in the game. Known to stand back to return the big serves of players like John Isner and Milos Raonic, Nadal is now doing the same against Djokovic, and it’s costing him big time.
Giving your biggest rival — and the most dominant player on the planet — such a wide opening to play offense doesn’t make any sense. There’s no need for Nadal to stand as far back as he does on Djokovic’s first serve, let alone his second serve. Some will argue that Nadal can do this because of his scrambling ability, but if you examine their previous matches, Nadal wins with an offensive mindset, and defending when he has to. Nowadays, he’s trying to to win with a defensive mindset, playing offensive when he has to — or gets the chance to.
Additionally, Nadal is far too predictable when returning Djokovic’s second serve. Having watched enough of their matches, it has become glaringly obvious that Djokovic prefers the kicker out wide, on both the deuce and ad sides. Does Nadal know this? Probably. Does he look like he knows this when playing? Not at all. While I’m not going to say it happens every time, let’s just say there are no shortage of instances in where Nadal takes a Djokovic second serve and places it right up the middle of the court.
In theory, this is a good play because going up the middle takes away Djokovic’s angles from the back of the court. In reality, it becomes a poor shot because, too often, Nadal drops it short. The Serb is pretty good at blasting it straight through the court, so the Spaniard’s strategy no longer matters. If you watch the point where this happens, it is almost always the case that Djokovic takes the offensive, and starts pulling Nadal right and left if he hasn’t already put the ball away.
Nadal either has to return deeper and return to the middle less. It’s that simple.
2. Forehand Cross-Court
Watching Nadal play Djokovic, I wonder if he actually thinks he’s playing Federer as he continually attempts to overwhelm the Serb with cross-court forehands. While Nadal does have the greatest topspin forehand ever, Djokovic is the best player at handling it — with his own backhand. Unless Nadal is hitting his forehand at an extremely high level, and producing pace, spin, depth, angles, he can’t go cross-court in isolation.
One of Nadal’s biggest weapons in last year’s French Open final was his forehand down the line. With Djokovic knowing that Nadal is going to go cross-court with most of his forehands, it’s imperative that Nadal keeps him honest by occasionally going up the line. An added benefit of this is the notion that Djokovic has been much better defending off the backhand than his forehand. He’s pretty darn spectacular on both, but going after the forehand might be the safer bet for Nadal.
As of late, Nadal’s cross-court forehand has been falling perilously short, making it much easier for Djokovic to handle. It also allows Djokovic to subsequently attack Nadal’s forehand, or go up the line with his own backhand.
In the second video, Nadal could have easily gone inside-out to end the point, but chose to go right back to Djokovic’s backhand. Again, against most players, this is probably a fine choice, but not against the World No. 1.
3. Backhand Directionals
I’ve always though Nadal’s backhand was, by far, his most attackable shot. Over the years, his forehand has proven to be a bastion of offensive and defensive supremacy. Of late, his inability to produce depth off that side has really changed that paradigm. His backhand, while at times producing moments of greatness and generally being pretty solid, could more easily be attacked. It’s not nearly as dominant offensively or defensively as his forehand.
Djokovic has loved going heavy cross-court with his own forehand into Nadal’s backhand over the years. He’s been able to put Nadal on defense by getting the ball higher up to his backhand, using spin to work acute angles cross and forcing the Spaniard to chip his backhand just to stay in the rally.
What I would love to see Nadal do to counter this: run around his own backhand more frequently, get more width/depth going cross-court with his backhand, or simply step in and take his own backhand up the line. There’s no reason for Nadal to consistently allow Djokovic to feast on short, flailing backhands that allow the Serb to command the point.
4. Serving Patterns
Does Rafael Nadal know that Novak Djokovic has a forehand return of serve? Watching their semifinal from last Saturday, you wouldn’t know that he did. Nadal was stubborn, targeting serve after serve to the Serb’s backhand. Djokovic arguably possesses the best backhand the game has ever seen. That level of predictability may suffice against other players, but against someone who can effectively respond to Nadal’s twisting serves, it’s critical that the Spaniard start going more to the forehand.
In their match last weekend, the few times Nadal did go after Djokovic’s backhand, he got burned. And it wasn’t because it was the wrong tactic, it was because, despite being jammed, the World No. 1 was fighting everything off to hit spectacular winners.
Moving forward, Nadal needs to start serving less to Djokovic’s strength but be less predictable in general. The body works too, as evidenced by the selected video highlights.
The Djokovic-Nadal rivalry is arguably the greatest of our time, but it is getting a bit one-sided these days. Part of it has to do with Nadal’s form — as seen in his second round loss to Fabio Fognini in Barcelona — but the rest has to do with Nadal becoming more predictable and allowing Djokovic to execute his desired strategies and patterns of play.
With about a month until the French Open kicks off, the nine-time champion is going to have a mighty challenge on his hands trying to defend his title, especially if he has to face a certain Serb along the way. He can do it — he always has — but he’s going to have to make some serious adjustments along the way and hope that in combination with improving his form, it is enough.