The 2013 Men’s final in Rome was absolutely lopsided, as we know. It very nearly ended as a double-breadstick, if not for a late Federer break of serve when he was down 1-6, 1-5. Rafael Nadal was utterly dominant, and he wasn’t threatened throughout the scant 69 minutes that spanned the whole contest. Those looking for a repeat of the memorable 2006 final between the two men were left bitterly disappointed.
Leading into the match, I was curious to see how Nadal’s return of serve would fare against Federer’s historically great serve. But as I started tallying the Spaniard’s service games, an idea came to me: why don’t I tally Federer’s return of serve as well? I wanted to see what kind of trends emerged when both men’s returning was stacked side to side.
Turns out, the return numbers were far more interesting than I thought.
Roger Federer’s Return of Serve
For example, it’s safe to say Roger Federer had an excellent afternoon returning Nadal’s second serve: the Swiss returned 10 of 11 second serves, and of those 10 returned second serves, 70% were returned deep (a return is determined to be deep of it goes past the service line, and then a foot further). That’s a good thing, right? It even looks good on a chart!
Federer didn’t return Nadal’s first serve badly, either: he put 60% back in play, gave up six free points (aces and service winners) per set (four in the first and eight in the second set), and 67% of his first serve returns were deep. That’s not shabby, really. This also looks pretty good on a graph:
(Now, allow me a quick rant: Why on earth aren’t service winners tallied? It’s the easiest thing in the world, no? Aces are tallied, so why not service winners? They’re essentially the same thing! The server wins the point without having to hit another shot. Not having service winners as a separate stat, or joined with aces, makes it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of a serve like Rafael Nadal’s. In this specific match, the now seven-time Rome champion finished with only one ace … but 11 service winners. Unless you tally them yourself, there’s no way of knowing this bit of information.)
Anyway, back to Federer: if his returning was so good, why did he lose 1-6, 3-6 in 69 minutes? Partly because his returning might have been the only element of his game that was up to task Sunday afternoon. Here’s a breakdown of what went wrong:
1. Federer was strangely defensive to a question in his post-match presser about whether he was taking MPH off his first serve during the final. I actually agree with the question (posed by Ubaldo Scanagatta): it seemed to me that Roger was essentially serving good second serves throughout the first set. Unsurprisingly, Federer’s first serve percentage for that set was a ridiculous 82%.
(Quick rant number two here: Why on Earth isn’t the speed of every serve available? Most courts on the ATP Tour are equipped with the system that measures a serve’s speed. Why not integrate it with the systems already installed for scorekeeping? At the very least we could have average first and second serve speeds given to us per set, no? The theory above could be easily proven/disproven.)
Normally when you hear that Federer had such a high percentage of first serves during a set, you’d assume he won said set of tennis, not lost it in a 1-6 drubbing. But that 82% was more due to going for safer serves than for hitting outrageous serves time and time again. I thought Federer decided to go for bigger first serves in the second set, given that the first strategy didn’t really work. It was a valid adjustment, but the execution wasn’t there: Federer ended up serving just 39% first serves in that final set.
2. The three-time Rome finalist was extremely erratic from the back of the court – off both wings, no less. He finished with 32 total unforced errors, 15 of which came off the forehand, and 15 came off the backhand (the remaining two consist of a double fault and a failed smash). Rafael Nadal won 59 points during the whole contest. Federer’s unforced errors represented 54% of that total. Surely not a good thing, no?
The above paragraph might explain why even though Federer put up such nice return numbers, four of Nadal’s eight service games were love holds.
The conclusion is obvious: even though Federer put himself in good positions with his return of serve, he was far too erratic from the back of the court to take advantage of all those good returns. This point actually gets amplified when we look at what Nadal did on the return of serve:
Rafael Nadal’s Return of Serve
The 24-time Masters 1000 Champion had a spectacular day putting returns back in play: Nadal put 77% of first serves back in play, and he only failed to return one second serve throughout the whole match (23 out of 24). Overall, Nadal put returned 85% of Federer’s deliveries (first and second serve combined).
This chart lets you know just how good Nadal was at putting back those Federer first serves (with the added caveat about that shot that is explained above):
That’s simply excellent. The ATP World Feed also put up this graph, around the midpoint of the match:
95% of returns made is just fantastic, even if they’re coming from the back fence, right? Nadal conceded only seven free service points in the whole match, which averages to just 3.5 per set. That’s a really good number.
Now, have you noticed how I haven’t mentioned the depth of Nadal’s returns at all?
There’s a simple reason: those numbers aren’t very good: Nadal sent deep returns on only 33% of first serves, and only on 20% of second serves. Again, you look at these numbers and assume that Federer had an easy time firing off winners off of Nadal’s short returns. Not so.
Overall, only 23% of all returns put back in play by Rafael Nadal were deep. Yet he won 6-1, 6-3 in a little over an hour. Why? Simple! Rafael Nadal was impeccable from the back of the court. He ended the match with only eight (!!!) unforced errors, and had only three fewer winners than Federer (12 to 15).
Roger Federer won only 36 points during the match, and Nadal’s unforced errors represented only 22% of that total. As a reminder, Federer’s unforced errors represented 54% of Nadal’s total points.
The Manacorí was particularly effective at protecting his serve, even if Federer’s returns were generally deep: the Spaniard lost only 11 of 41 points on his serve (good for 73%), and only two of those were lost on the second serve (out of 11).
Perhaps the most telling statistic of the whole match is this: Nadal won 40 baseline points during the final. How many did Federer win? Just 17. In terms of percentages, Nadal won 70% of all baseline points. That’s pretty darn impressive, if you ask me.
Of course, tennis is also played in the forecourt, but Federer wasn’t all that successful at net, either: he won only nine of 19 points played there (Nadal was much more effective, winning four out of five).
Perhaps the most jarring aspect of this final was how far away Federer was from making it competitive. The Swiss surely wasn’t helped by the scheduling: he was playing for the second time in a row with fewer than 24 hours between matches, and his last three rounds had been played at night.
Still, Federer had received a supremely accessible path to the final (he didn’t lose a set, and the highest-ranked player he encountered was No. 17 Gilles Simon in the third round), while Nadal had to struggle past Ernests Gulbis and David Ferrer in three sets before trouncing Tomas Berdych in the semis. Plus, Federer lost early in Madrid, while Nadal was trying to win the Madrid/Rome double for the second time in his career (though the first time he did it, it was Rome/Madrid).
On a day where he needed to at his absolute best, Federer did produce a very good return of serve performance. But the serve and the groundstrokes were decidedly below par. And when that happens against Rafael Nadal, particularly on a clay court, we end up with a 1 and 3 drubbing.