Going into the Cincinnati final between Rafael Nadal and John Isner, my hypothesis for how this post would go was simple: Nadal would find enough opportunities on Isner’s serve to win comfortably, and since John Isner is one of the worst returners on the ATP tour, the man from Mallorca would dominate on serve.
Turns out, I was wrong.
Rafael Nadal didn’t have a single opportunity to break Isner’s serve, yet won in straight sets. John Isner had 3 break points (two of those were set points in the opening stanza), but couldn’t convert any of them. In fact, if you look at the numbers, you could even argue that John Isner actually outperformed Rafael Nadal when returning serve.
That sentence was as bizarre to type as it is for you to read, surely.
If this is the first time you’ve seen one of these Return of Serve Analysis pieces, you can read all about my methodology by clicking here. And if you’re already familiar with this kind of thing, let’s just dive into the data:
Rafael Nadal’s Return of Serve Performance
Totals and Double Faults
– Notice that not only did Nadal fail to create a single break point – he only got to Deuce twice. In the same game. This was a fine serving performance by Isner, who was well into one of his purple patches of good form.
– Two things to remember: Nadal put back in play 7 of 10 serves in the 1st set tiebreaker, and 4 of 5 serves in the 2nd set tiebreaker, good for 70% and 80%, respectively. Yet he only returned a 67% of all Isner serves, a number that seems quite pedestrian, until you remember that we’re talking about John Isner’s serve.
Still, I find it interesting that when it mattered the most, the 26-time Masters 1000 champion found ways to get more of those big serves back in play. And John Isner couldn’t find the bombs that were allowing him to hold easily for most of the match.
Returning First Serves
– All of these are numbers that seem quite pedestrian: Isner got 24 free points in 14 games (two of which were tiebreakers), which amounts to at least one in every game. If you look at table above, you’ll see that Nadal only managed to keep the freebies from Isner in a single game (at 6-5 in the 2nd set).
– One aspect that’s not pedestrian is the 50% of 1st serves returned deep. That’s a pretty great number. Nadal was achieving this kind of depth mostly by blocking or slicing the return back. Surprisingly, I thought Isner did a better job putting away those deep floaters than Nadal’s short returns. Something for the big man to work on.
Returning Second Serves
– Here we have the most comical figure I’ve ever recorded during my short time tracking returns of serve: the 7% of deep 2nd serve returns Nadal achieved yesterday. Here are two thoughts about how that hilarious number came to be:
1) Since the Federer match, Nadal reverted to his clay return of serve stance. Normally I would decry such an adjustment, but I thought it was actually the key to turning that particular match around. Against Isner, Nadal stayed deep behind the baseline (as far as 19 feet behind it, as the CBS broadcast showed us) to try to return Isner’s monster kick serves. The results seem a mixed bag: yes, Nadal put 82% of those huge 2nd serves back in play, but almost all were short. But the lack of depth didn’t end up hurting him that much, since Isner wasn’t being too effective with those short balls anyway.
2) Isner had a fantastic serving day. Just look at how few second serves the man from Greensboro hit throughout the match. In three full games John didn’t have to hit a single second delivery. Which is incredible…and daunting if you’re on the other side of the net. Anyway, the lack of second serves didn’t allow Nadal to properly adjust the depth of his full-swing 2nd serve returns from “the border with Kentucky,” as Jim Courier called Nadal’s return position.
Overall, it wasn’t a return of serve performance to write home about for Rafael Nadal. But in the key moments, as he’s always done throughout his career, he’s found ways to put back those serves in play to give himself a chance to engage in rallies. And his efforts were handsomely rewarded.
John Isner’s Return of Serve Performance
Totals and Double Faults
– As you can see, John Isner actually put back in play a higher number of Nadal’s serves than Nadal did on Isner’s serve. And you see where the big man created his break chances, too. However, John is a streaky returner: if he gets on a roll, he is capable of hitting some pretty incredible returns. Notice that there are 4 games in which Isner returned every single Nadal serve.
But Isner is also liable to miss three or four very makeable returns in a row. You’ll notice above that Nadal had 4 love holds and 5 holds to 15 throughout the match. That’s 9 service games out of 14 in which Rafael Nadal lost at most one point on serve.
– Remember how Nadal returned 70% and 80% of serves in each of the tiebreakers? Look at Isner’s numbers: 63% and 60%. While Nadal returned better than his match average in those key moments of the match, Isner actually returned worse than his match average.
In a final of this caliber, the margins are so very small.
Returning First Serves
– Isner’s streaky return nature can be seen in the way he conceded free points to Nadal’s first serve: the Spaniard didn’t earn a single freebie in 5 service games. But collected at last 2 free points in 6 other service games.
– I think that Isner’s number for percentage of 1st serves returned is remarkable, given his natural limitations (guys his height aren-t supposed to react quickly to a serve that’s coming at them at 115 mph, no?). But the percentage of deep 1st serve returns is problematic, since Rafael Nadal is one of the best ever at putting away short balls. 43% won’t cut it.
Returning Second Serves
– Notice Isner’s struggles to get depth on those second serve returns, too. This is an area where you have to excel if you are to beat the ATP Race leader: you need to push him back with every second serve return. Isner couldn’t do that, which made life much easier for Rafael.
– Notice those costly 2nd serve return misses in the first set tiebreaker. Only one was a pure mistake, but the other was the result of a gamble. You see, Isner has been very smart about running around his backhand for 2nd serve returns in key moments of the match. He starts moving to his left as soon as the toss goes up, putting a little bit of extra pressure on the server, who can see the big man move around menacingly out of the corner of his eye.
The server has a choice to make (in a fraction of a second, since the ball is in the air): 1) go with the original serve, which will almost surely go to the backhand, and risk being blasted away by an Isner forehand return or 2) change the direction of the serve and go out wide, where there’s acres of empty space. Good servers are able to execute the second choice, which is what Rafael Nadal did in that first set breaker.
Novak Djokovic tried to do the same thing in the same junction of his quarterfinal match against Isner. But he couldn’t place the 2nd serve inside the box, and double-faulted. That mistake cost him the set. Nadal actually made this same mistake earlier in the first set, but properly executed it later on.
When John Isner is playing well, the margins for error shrink to mere points. And Rafael Nadal, found a way to hold his nerve when it mattered most. Per usual. The 26 Masters 1000 trophies he’s collected can attest to the Spaniard’s skill at playing the big points better than most.