Tomas Berdych came into today’s semifinal against Rafael Nadal in a rather strange position. The Czech had just snapped a 12-match losing streak against Novak Djokovic (after being down 2-6, 2-5), which had to feel great. However, Tomas was faced with another daunting task just 24 hours after that achievement: Rafael Nadal had also beaten him 12 straight times. It has to be extremely tough to have to break two streaks of that magnitude in consecutive matches, no?
As we know, Berdych didn’t even come close to breaking this specific 12-match losing streak. Rafael Nadal was his dominant self in his 6-2, 6-4 victory. Nadal was particularly effective with his serve: the man from Manacor lost only eight points with his first delivery (27/35), and zero with his second serve (10/10). Berdych only manufactured one break point, which was dutifully saved.
In terms of the return of serve, I thought Nadal had a very good day with it. Yes, Berdych had OK numbers (60% first serve points won, 56% second serve points won, five Aces and no double faults), but most of those are well below his averages for the year, per the ATP MatchFacts (76% first serve points won, 51% second serve points won, 7.2 Aces per match). Regardless, I’ve thought for a while that one of the biggest reasons why Nadal (and Djokovic) have enjoyed such great success against Tomas is that they both have a good read on the tall Czech’s serve. They can anticipate where the serves are coming, and they can sense the patterns used by Berdych. And while Djokovic couldn’t put the Czech away, Nadal had very little trouble doing so.
As I did for the Nadal-Gulbis match, I tracked all of Nadal’s return games, with one variation: returns of serve that landed one foot past the service line will now be called “short” instead of “deep.” The reason is simple: a return that lands barely past the service line is still a return that will get attacked. Moving the service line an (imaginary) foot further gives us a better handle on what constitutes a good (deep) versus a bad (short) return. Here is what I found:
Nadal’s First Serve Return
– Rafael returned 63% of Berdych’s first serves, which is a pretty decent number if you ask me. A vast improvement from the Gulbis match, in which the Spaniard only returned 54% of the Latvian’s first deliveries.
– Nadal conceded only 11 free points off his first serve return (five aces and six service winners), which amounted to 31% of all points Berdych won in the match. Of course, that last stat is skewed by the fact that Berdych barely won any points off Nadal’s serve, as noted above.
– A better way of looking at the free points stat is if we divide the total number of free points by the number of sets played. Yesterday, Nadal conceded an average of nine free points per set on first serve returns. Today, that number dropped to 5.5.
Here is a chart that shows you how Nadal did in each return game in terms of percentage of first serves that were put back in play (the red highlight in the horizontal axis means that Nadal broke serve in that particular Berdych service game):
As you can see, Nadal did pretty decently in terms of putting those big Berdych first serves back in play. Only in two games did Nadal fail to return the majority of first serves (Berdych had two aces and four service winners in those two games combined). And that’s perfectly fine: big servers sometimes get into a good rhythm with their weapon, and there’s not much anybody can do about it.
It’s also worth noting how Nadal gave Berdych no free points off his serve at the end of the match. The last one came in the 2-all game of the second set (an ace).
Here’s a different graph, which details how many of those first serves that were returned qualified as deep returns:
Overall, 47% of Nadal’s first serve returns that made it inside the court were deep. That doesn’t look like a great number, but the graph above helps understand why it came about: the seventh and eighth game dragged the average down significantly (and Berdych only hit three first serves in those two games anyway). If you take those two games out, Nadal managed to make deep first serve returns 56% of the time.
Moreover, you can see in the graph that Nadal managed to get mostly (50% or more) deep returns back on first serves during five of the eight games in which he put first serve returns in play (the second game gets taken out of the equation, since Nadal didn’t put a single first serve back in play). Again, not bad at all.
Nadal’s Second Serve Return
– Once again, Nadal was excellent in terms of putting second serves back in play: he did so on 17 out of 18 possible opportunities, good for 94%. The basic task of the returner is to put a second serve back in play, and Nadal is nearly flawless at this.
– Nadal vastly improved the quality of those second serve returns, as compared to the Gulbis match: the Spaniard went from returning only 37% of second serve returns deep, to 53% in this match, which is a very, very good thing.
Here’s a graph where you can see the percentage of deep second serve returns by Nadal in every return game:
As always, good things happen when those second serve returns are deep. In his first and last return game of the match, Nadal got a look at three second serves. All three were returned deep.
In a related point, I found it interesting that Berdych wasn’t limited to second serves in the games in which he was broken. In Berdych’s first service game, four out of five points were played on Berdych’s first serve, in the third game it was five out of six first serve points. Only in the last service game of the match did Berdych not play the majority of the points with his first serve: the four points were split evenly among serves.
Before you ask, no, Nadal didn’t alter his return stance. I’m guessing he’s going to stick with it until the French Open ends. Which is not a terrible thing if he puts up numbers like the ones above on a consistent basis.
Nadal showed today what it’s like to play him when he’s nearing his best: untouchable on his own serve, and a menace with returns of serve that give him chances to pounce later in the point.
It also showed just how deep in Nadal’s pocket poor Tomas Berdych is. The World No. 6 was far from threatening to make this a match, and lost to Rafael for the 13th straight time. In fact, Tomas hasn’t found a way past Nadal after beating him in the Madrid (Indoor) Masters in 2006. At that point, the Czech had a 3-1 edge in the head-to-head. How things have changed, eh?