I woke up today and the first thing I saw on my TV screen was Rafael Nadal trying to serve out the second set of his match against Ernests Gulbis. I quickly saw that the unpredictable Latvian had won the first set 6-1. I was surprised, although I shouldn’t have been: Ernests played Nadal as tough as anybody at Indian Wells, in a match I still rank among the best of the year.
As the match developed, I started fixating on something that has been a focus of mine during Nadal’s comeback: his position when returning serve. As we know, the 6-time Rome champion has resorted to dropping back near the back fence of main courts everywhere (it’s a very good thing that Nadal is never scheduled on one of the smaller courts – he’d find it impossible to go as far back as he wishes). How far back is the 11-time Slam champ standing to return serve these days?
Here’s a list of things you could fit between Rafael Nadal and the baseline as he sets to return a Gulbis first serve:
– A Texas Edition Ford F150 (with the front facing the baseline)
– A small strip mall
– The Vatican
You get the point. Nadal is standing so far back that I wonder if opponents should start serving underhanded to him. He’d have to cover a good 40 yards just to chase down that kind of serve.
Here’s another chart, courtesy of the ATP World Feed (from the beginning of the second set):
Notice how there’s barely any difference between where Nadal is making contact on first serves and second serves. He’s closer to the front row of spectators than he is to the baseline.
Anyway, I’ve already written plenty about Nadal and his stubbornness regarding his return stance. I see his point: he’s trying to give himself a chance to hit full groundstrokes on returns. And if he gets enough pace and depth on those returns, he’ll push back his opponent and seize control immediately. I also agree with Nadal in that this approach will work pretty well against 90% of the ATP world tour.
The problem is what happens when Nadal faces two kind of players. The first kind is limited to a single guy: Novak Djokovic. The World Number One doesn’t mind Nadal’s haymakers from the baseline, so even if the Spaniard gets a deep return from the back fence, Djokovic will take the ball on the rise, neutralizing the good return.
The second kind of player is someone like Gulbis, who can hit the corners of the service box with his deliveries, and has plenty of pop behind them. A server of this nature will gladly take advantage of all the real estate offered by Nadal and focus solely on hitting those corners. A server of this caliber will also get into a groove with his serve, making it far more difficult to get those bombs back.
All of this ran through my head while I watched Nadal try to survive a spirited challenge by the perennial and volatile underachiever from Latvia. So, I decided to do something I should’ve done before: track every single one of Nadal’s returns of serve.
In an Excel worksheet I quickly started tallying whether 1st serves went unreturned (either Aces or Service Winners), and if they did get returned by Nadal, whether they were deep or short returns. Same for second serves.
Now, you might be wondering: what makes a return “deep?” I thought that for this initial exercise I’d keep it simple: any return that crossed the service line qualified as a “deep” return. Anything below that is a short return.
While I started logging Nadal’s returns, I realized two things:
1. There is a special kind of short return of serve that’s actually aggressive and very lethal: the angled return of serve. Nadal hit one return of this variety, which got logged as “short,” but which doesn’t deserve to be lumped with other mediocre short returns. The good news? It’s such a rarity that it doesn’t make much of a difference in the overall analysis.
2. Nadal got plenty of returns that fell within a foot beyond the service line. They all got logged as deep, but they really weren’t. Hence, for future analysis, I’ll include those as short. Thanks, Rafael, for helping me refine my analysis!
Without further ado, here are my findings:
Nadal’s First Serve Return
– Rafael Nadal only managed to return 54% of 1st serves. He gave up 15 Aces (a very high number, given that Gulbis is averaging just 7.5 aces per match in 2013, per the ATP MatchFacts), as well as 12 Service Winners.
In other words, Gulbis won 27 points with just one swing of the racquet. That’s a heck of a lot of free points: they amount to 28% of all the points won by Ernests Gulbis in the entire match.
– Of the 54% of 1st serves that Nadal did manage to put back in play, only 35% landed beyond the service line. This fact makes it easy to see how Gulbis won 72% of his 1st serve points (that’s 5% down from what Gulbis is averaging this year, but we do have to factor in the surface here).
Here is a chart that shows you how Nadal did in each return game in terms of % of 1st serves that were put back in play:
As you can see, Nadal struggled early, but got better as the match wore on. In the first 7 Gulbis service games, Nadal only managed to return more than half of Gulbis’ first serves once. In stark contrast, Nadal returned more than half of Gulbis’ 1st serves in 6 of the last 8 games.
As an added bit of trivia, the man from Manacor broke serve in two of the three games in which he put all of Gulbis’ first serves back in play.
Nadal’s Second Serve Return
– I was somewhat shocked by this: Rafael Nadal put in play 34 out of 35 second serves. That’s good for 99%. The only missed return came in the 8th game of the 2nd set. It’s worth noticing that it was an aggressive backhand return that barely missed the baseline. Also, Nadal would end up breaking serve in that game anyway.
This is the real advantage of sitting that far back and playing the kind of loopy shots Nadal hits in these circumstances: these second serve returns are relatively safe, consistent shots. Here is where he gets to use his full swing and target a particular wing of his opponent. Also, his chances of hitting forehands increases.
Still, only 37% of those 2nd serve returns that were put back in play landed beyond the service line. That’s way too few, no? Particularly considering that the server has more time to set up for this kind of return.
Here’s a graph where you can see the percentage of deep second serve returns by Nadal in every return game:
You can see a similar pattern as in the 1st serve return graph: Nadal evidently got better second serve returns as the match wore on (Gulbis didn’t hit a single second serve in the 14th game, hence the empty space). However, it interesting to note that Nadal could never do better than 50% deep returns on second serves.
Regardless, Nadal’s issues didn’t lie with the second serve return as much as with the first serve return. After all, the Spaniard did win 59% of all points played on Ernests Gulbis’ 2nd serve (which is 3% higher than Nadal’s average this year).
Plus, Nadal showed a willingness to move forward slightly on second serve returns, as you can see in this screencap taken during the second set:
Babysteps, yes. But at least they’re in the right direction.
I was surprised to see that Nadal struggled more with his first serve return than with his second serve return, since I thought the latter was the more problematic of the two (and it certainly was during the recent Monte Carlo final).
Nadal’s road to the Rome title will include a rematch of the recent Madrid quarterfinal against his good friend David Ferrer (who was a misplaced forehand away from having two match points against Nadal at the #CajaTrágica). After that, it could be a reprise of the Monte Carlo final, as Novak Djokovic could be waiting in the semis. The final would most likely see Roger Federer try and stop Nadal from nabbing a 7th Rome title.
It’s a tough road ahead, and it will be fascinating to see how Nadal’s return of serve fares against opponents of that quality – particularly if he ends up playing Djokovic once again. As Nadal himself would say:
“We gonna see, no?”