Heading into the Dubai final between Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych, I had a simple idea. What if I tracked every single backhand down the line that is hit during the match? My hypothesis was that Djokovic was going to use that particular shot to great effect today. After all, the recent Australian Open champion had used his two-hander down the line pretty frequently (and effectively) in his semifinal win over Juan Martín del
Crosscourt Potro. I didn’t really expect Tomas Berdych to use his own backhand in an aggressive way. Well, things didn’t turn out that way:
That’s a little shocking, isn’t it?
It has to be said that Tomas Berdych, whom I frequently give a hard time for his tactical shortcomings, came out of the blocks with a sound gameplan in order to try and win his first Dubai title. Berdych’s execution was near flawless, too. The Facebook maestro did not want to play short rallies, and he was looking to attack with the first or second ball. It was glorious Big Man tennis, and Djokovic was sufficiently rattled. Additionally, when Berdych – and not Djokovic – inaugurated my backhand down the line tally in the very first game of the match, I started to suspect that my initial hypothesis was going to be problematic to prove. Here is my scorecard for the first set:
Note that by the end of the fifth game, when Berdych got the break, the Czech had attempted six backhands down the line compared to just one attempt for Djokovic. That was a completely unexpected trend, and you can see how it continued until the 10th game. The Dubai broadcast even showed this Hawk-Eye graphic, which lends further support to this surprising trend:
What was interesting was how Berdych was not only blasting drive backhands down the line, but also mixing in some nice slice backhand approach shots. This is a great idea against Djokovic, who is much better at dealing with attacking shots and low balls on his backhand side. Berdych’s plan was smart, and it was working.
However, something happened inside Berdych’s head at the end of that 10th game, because it would mark the beginning of a new tendency, which is better told by the following graph (and by looking at the rows that correspond to the 11th and 12th games in the first set scorecard):
Isn’t it remarkable that Berdych attempted 13 backhands down the line during the first 10 games of the match (more than one attempt per game), and then proceeded to attempt only four for the remaining 11 games of the match (0.36 attempts per game)? Was it because Berdych started misfiring on that shot? Not really:
So why would a player of Tomas Berdych’s stature abandon such a successful shot? It wasn’t hurting him one bit. Slowly but surely, the Czech No. 1 gradually shed his initial bravado and ideas. Berdych stopped being a threat to Djokovic, falling back to the familiar dynamics that have lead to the pair’s extremely lopsided head-to-head (in case you don’t know, it’s 13-1 in favor of Djokovic after today’s win). Why did this happen?
I have absolutely no idea.
Here’s the second set scorecard, where we see how the (now) four-time Dubai Champion and the first time Dubai finalist had retreated into familiar patterns – something that simply doesn’t work in Berdych’s favor:
Notice those middle games of the set. I actually re-watched those, thinking that I had gotten distracted and stopped paying attention to the shot I was supposed to tally. Nope, no dice. Not a single backhand down the line was hit in three straight games.
Tennis players tend to fall back on what’s comfortable and safe when their confidence is wavering, and Berdych’s confidence took two big shots in the first set that seemingly destroyed his brilliant tactical approach to this match:
1) Facing a break point at 4-3, but still up a break, Berdych hit a wonderful backhand down the line and came to net looking to put away Djokovic’s cross court forehand passing shot. Berdych found himself with a makeable volley, but he proceeded to stone it into the net. Such a deflating error gave away his hard-earned break advantage.
2) Facing set point when serving at 5-6, Lucie Safarova’s ex double faulted.
Still, isn’t it amazing how Berdych retreated into his usual tactic-less self after mistakes that didn’t have anything to do with his initial tactical approach? To further this point, Berdych handed Djokovic the decisive break in the second set by badly missing … an overhead smash.
To recap, the match was probably decided by a stoned forehand volley, a double fault, and a botched smash. Yet the backhand down the line was the shot that got taken out of the arsenal as soon as things started to look bad.
Now, why were Djokovic’s backhand down the line attempts so low in this match? It was quite funny to hear one of the commentators of the match (the one that’s not David Mercer) say something like, “Djokovic gave Berdych a taste of his own medicine there,” in the second game of the second set, as Djokovic unleashed a very successful backhand down the line. That was a weird comment to make, isn’t it? If there’s a player who is famous for his backhand down the line, it’s the World No. 1. Heck, we had just seen it used so well the day before against Del Potro! So why did Djokovic go away from his (allegedly) favorite shot?
It has to do with the gameplan Djokovic wanted to implement for this match, along with Berdych’s court position tendencies.
In terms of Djokovic’s strategy, it was clear from the start that he wanted this match to be decided by forehands. The World No. 1 surely remembers that while Berdych owns a most powerful forehand, it’s prone to breaking down. Djokovic probably thought that he was going to be able to coax some errors from cross court backhand exchanges, too.
Berych’s court position tendencies also influenced this approach: unlike Del Potro (and Federer), Berdych doesn’t look to camp out on his backhand corner: he likes to gravitate towards the middle of the court. Hence, there’s less space available for Djokovic to target with his backhand down the line.
Of course, the other obstacle for Djokovic was Berdych’s (initial) willingness to be aggressive early on during rallies, particularly during cross court backhand exchanges. We know that Djokovic loves to take his time to unload on the backhand down the line: it’s as if he’s thinking “not yet….not yet….NOW!” Djokovic loves to hit that shot within the flow of a rally, not so much at the beginning of one. Berdych, by being the aggressor (take note of this, Juan Martín del Potro) with his own backhand down the line early in rallies, was effectively neutralizing one of Djokovic’s most dangerous weapons.
Sadly for Berdych, he seemingly forgot all the good things that were happening to him when he was executing a sound tactical gameplan at the beginning of the match. I guess these are the things that happen when you’re not exactly known for your tactical acumen.