Two shots in the court from each player create a defining line in the sand — or crushed Roman brick — in a tennis point.
Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 in the Internazionali BNL d’Italia final by owning the shorter rallies, specifically the 0-4 shot rally length. Nadal dominated in that category, winning 14 more points (50-36) than Djokovic. Once rallies drifted to five shots or more, Djokovic built a 14-point advantage, 58 points to 44.
Own the short. Lose the long. Add significant silverware to your Mallorcan trophy cabinet.
Djokovic’s advantage in longer rallies was even more significant in extended rallies of nine or more shots, where he won 20-5. Our sport obsesses about being consistent and having superior shot tolerance than your opponent, but the truth is that there is no more important statistic to own than winning the 0-4 shot rally length. Losing the longer rallies rarely means you lose the match. The Rome final was further proof of how winning titles in our sport actually happens.
At the start of the week in Rome, Nadal worked on the practice court to tame his errant forehand. It flew on him. It lacked shape and control. As the tournament progressed, his hard work paid off and his forehand emerged as the key shot in the final.
Nadal found his range with his forehand early and often in the opening set, crushing 15 forehand winners to just two for Djokovic. For the match, Nadal finished with 26 forehand winners to just 11 for the Serbian. Nadal’s favourite place to hit forehand winners was as a run-around forehand standing in the Deuce court, directing the ball inside-out to Djokovic’s forehand wing. Nadal also hit a lot of rally forehands to Djokovic’s backhand side in the Ad court, but the knockout blows were directed more to the vacant Deuce court.
Both players struck more forehands than backhands for the match, but Nadal was able to feast on significantly more, helping him edge control and flow of the baseline exchanges.
Total Rally Forehands/Backhands
• Forehands = 57% (184)
• Backhands = 43% (139)
• Forehands = 51% (159)
• Backhands = 49% (153)
Nadal’s average net clearance for the match was almost a metre over the net at 0.96 metres. This forced Djokovic to make contact with the ball on average at 1.24 metres. The combination of increased height and heavy spin made Nadal’s forehands land deep in the court where they were difficult to attack. Djokovic played lower over the net with an average net clearance of just 0.69 metres. This made Nadal make contact with his groundstrokes on average at just 0.98 metres. Nadal hit 80 per cent of his shots deep of the service line, while Djokovic was just at 73 per cent.
Own the short rallies. Own the more potent forehand. That’s enough to own any given Sunday.
Overall, Nadal’s ability to thrive on adversity, manage time, absorb power, be patient, and unleash hell on the right ball was rewarded with another major title. He did it with the forehand and he did it with being the first to attack in the point.