Novak Djokovic hit pay dirt on the red dirt in the sweet spot of the rally.

Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 in the Roland Garros semi-finals on Friday by dominating mid-length rallies, which have traditionally been controlled by the Spaniard throughout his career. Overall, Nadal won the short exchanges and Djokovic barely edged his rival in the longer, extended rallies. Ultimately, Djokovic found the separation he desperately needed when the rally length was specifically between four and seven shots.

The average rally length for the match was 5.3 shots, so the more points that were played right around the average, the more success Djokovic enjoyed. The Serbian won an extremely healthy 51.2 per cent (95/185) of his baseline points for the match, while Nadal could only manage 44.8 per cent (90/201).

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Rally Lengths – 0-3 Shots
Nadal committed an uncharacteristic eight double faults for the match, and combined with nine return errors, sunk his own ship too often before he had a chance to challenge Djokovic in heavyweight baseline exchanges. Those errors withstanding, Nadal still enjoyed a seven-point advantage for the match in short exchanges of zero to three shots.

Points Won: 0-3 Shots
• Djokovic = 41 points
• Nadal = 48 points

In the opening set, Nadal built a commanding 18-11 advantage in 0-3 shot rallies, hitting seven winners and collecting 11 total errors from Djokovic.

Rally Lengths – 4-7 Shots
This is where the Super Serbian exerted the most pressure on Nadal. These rallies typically included a deep return from Djokovic followed by a solid crosscourt backhand and a bruising forehand that proved too tough handle. Djokovic was relentless with these mid-length flurries. Get the point started, and then throw enough punches in quick succession that all stun Nadal and force him onto his back foot.

Points Won / Rally Length
• Four Shots = Djokovic 19 points/Nadal 9 points
• Five Shots = Djokovic 17 points/Nadal 15 points
• Six Shots = Djokovic 11 points/Nadal 11 points
• Seven Shots = 17 points/Nadal 5 points

• Djokovic = 54 points
• Nadal = 40 points

Overall, Djokovic amassed 54 points in these four specific rally lengths, while Nadal totalled just 40. Djokovic won just 18 more points (142-124) for the match, with 14 of them coming in these mid-length rallies. The biggest disparity was in seven-shot rallies, where Djokovic was 12 points better (17-5).

A seven-shot rally can only be won by the server, because what’s counted is the ball landing in the court, not hitting the strings. So the end of a seven-shot rally is a winner from the server or an error on the ensuring shot from the returner, which is still seven balls in the court. So these exchanges involve Djokovic hitting three shots after the serve, typically leaning on the ball more and more until Nadal was stretched off court committing an error.

Rally Lengths 8+ Shots
When the points drifted longer to eight shots or more, it was Djokovic who stepped up and hit the most winners with 17 to 13. He was was able to squeak out a marginal advantage, winning three more points overall than Nadal.

Points Won 8+ Shots
• Djokovic = 39 points
• Nadal = 36 points

There were three main parts of the match that all played a pivotal part in Djokovic’s ultimate victory. The first was managing to win three games in the first set after trailing 0-5. Avoiding a first-set blowout quickly erased memories of Nadal doing just that to him in last year’s final.

The second element was winning the decisive third set in a tie-break. That set will go down as one of the greatest sets in the history of our sport. And lastly, it was winning six straight games in the fourth set after trailing 0-2. He was able to relax and really hit through the ball better than he did at any other stage of the match.

Nadal had 48 winners and 93 total errors for the match. Djokovic had 50 winners and yielded just 76 forced and unforced errors. Nadal missed more than normal. Djokovic successfully made Nadal uncomfortable on his most comfortable court in the world.