A key ingredient for Rafael Nadal’s success against Novak Djokovic during the past two years has been a rather unlikely one: the newly-minted World No. 1 has been winning the return of serve battle. This is unlikely because you’d think that this particular aspect of their historic rivalry would favor Djokovic, widely believed to be not only the best male returner on Earth, but one that’s being touted as one of the best that’s ever stepped to the baseline to return a serve. One of the keys for Djokovic’s incredible 7-match winning streak over his Spanish contemporary was the ability to truly dominate with the return of serve. However, since the clay matches from last year, Rafael Nadal has been slowly shifting the momentum in that category. How has he done it? By doing all the little things good returners do: anticipating patterns, making deep returns consistently (particularly off second serves), and by defending shortish returns aptly.
It should be said that Rafael Nadal is a very underrated returner of serve. He’s not flashy, and he varies his return position quite a bit. However, he’s an extremely smart returner, one who tends to read patterns better than most and is extremely good at taking away an opponent’s favorite serve. In fact, Rafael Nadal edges (albeit very slightly) Djokovic in 3 of the 4 official Return of Serve categories this year. Which is amazing.
Having typed all of this, it’s won’t come as a surprise to hear that in the variables that I tally in this type of analysis, Nadal actually edged Djokovic in 4 out of 6:
– Nadal conceded fewer free points (Aces + Service Winners).
– Nadal returned a higher percentage of 1st serves.
– Nadal returned a higher percentage of 2nd serves.
– As a direct result of the previous two bullets, Nadal returned a higher percentage of serves than Djokovic.
So why was Nadal’s return performance actually an abomination? After all, we know that the Spaniard won all of 2 points off of Djokovic’s serve in the entire first set. We know that he never created a single break point in the entire match. And yet, I don’t think you can put all the blame on the return of serve, as you’ll see in the tables below.
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 Novak Djokovic held serve at love in 6 out of his 10 service games. Not only that, but Nadal never even managed to get to Deuce in any of these games. But was all of this because of bad returning? I mean, Nadal got 71% of all returns back, which is not altogether terrible (it might even be better than average).
Returning First Serves
– Here is where Nadal has a problem. Djokovic didn’t really light up the Ace count (he ended up with just 4) nor did he add many more Service Winners (just 7). But we do see that while Nadal returned 67% of Djokovic’s 1st serves…only 23% of those were deep, or 5 out of 22. This key area of returning is where Djokovic completely outperformed Nadal during this Beijing final, as you’ll see below.
– Another statistic that shows what a great serving day Djokovic had was this: he served 72% of 1st serves in the match. And that’s not by hitting soft 1st serves, either. When a good server finds this kind of groove, the returner’s task becomes significantly harder, as Nadal himself admitted.
Returning Second Serves
– The highlight just how few second serves Nadal got a look at. Never more than 2 in any game, in fact. But here’s something interesting: despite the fact that Nadal did a decent enough job returning second serves, he only managed to win 3 out of 13 points played on it.
This is as good a segue as I can imagine to make my next point about Nadal’s performance in this final: he wasn’t sharp enough, and not just while returning 1st serves. As we see above, he did well enough with 2nd serve returns to merit a better return than just 23% of 2nd serve points won. The reason Rafael ended with such a pitiful number is that he just wasn’t nearly as consistent as he needed to be in order to disrupt Djokovic’s rhythm in this match. Primarily, he was having all sorts of problems generating depth with his groundstrokes, as these two graphs relate (they were shown right after Djokovic broke Nadal to start the second set):
Look at the high number of very short balls, and the small number of deep balls. Now look at how Djokovic fared:
Quite a difference, eh? Of course, by now we know two things: 1) Novak Djokovic served mostly 1st serves during the whole match (nearly 3 out of every 4 serves), and 2) Rafael Nadal returned most of these serves (over 3 out of every 4 1st serves) short. So the above graphs aren’t really a surprise.
However, the missing element is how poorly Nadal did off the ground once he got a decent 2nd serve return in play. Unfortunately, ATP 500s don’t keep a tally of Unforced Errors or Forced Errors (insert rant about lack of important stats in tennis). Regardless, 2nd serve returns is the area where Nadal could’ve put pressure on Djokovic, and maybe influenced the way he was approaching those 1st serves. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Novak Djokovic’s Return of Serve Performance
Totals and Double Faults
– Notice how much worse Djokovic did in the highlighted bit. That’s 9% worse than Nadal in total serves returned. However, there’s the small detail that Djokovic played 3 elite return games (a full third), created break points in each of them, and broke serve in two of them. That was literally the difference in this match, as Nadal held either at love or at 30 in his remaining 6 service games.
Now, Djokovic has done this same thing in previous matches against Nadal. There was nothing out of the ordinary from his end. The surprising part was that Nadal couldn’t put together a single elite return game in the entire match.
Returning First Serves
– As I hinted above, the key stat in this entire post is the 57% deep 1st serve returns by Djokovic. That’s 34% better than Nadal (you could say that Rafael returned a higher percentage of 1st serves than Novak, but in actual terms, that amounts to only one fewer returned serve. And lets remember that Djokovic played one fewer return game than Nadal).
– Notice the incredible amount of Service Winners conceded by Djokovic – twice as many as Nadal, in fact. This tells you that the Spaniard had a pretty decent service performance himself, and that he’s probably the player who’s serve could be better understood and appreciated if the tennis establishment agreed to keep track of service winners.
Returning Second Serves
– I’m still a little shocked that Djokovic missed that many 2nd serve returns. What was more surprising was that nearly all of them were wild aggressive swings that didn’t come close to going in. Just very, very poor returns. But notice that none of those silly ultra-aggressive attempts came in the two games in which Djokovic actually broke serve (Nadal’s 1st and 5th service games).
This is shocking because most people would agree that Djokovic’s 2nd serve return style is based on being consistently aggressive with returns aimed at getting a short reply rather than an outright winner. It’s the opposite approach to Andre Agassi and James Blake. That’s why those reckless misses seemed so out of character.
And yet, Novak Djokovic won this match in pretty convincing fashion. In large part because of those 3 elite return games, the effectiveness of his 1st serve in terms of creating short returns, and the precision off the ground. All staples of his time as World No. 1. It goes without saying that the Serb will need more performances like these if he’s to regain that privileged spot atop men’s professional tennis.