Rafael Nadal sad French Open

Analyst suggests best strategy for a (very small) chance of overcoming Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros

Ok, so the chances of beating Rafa Nadal at the French Open are very slim but when the two matches he has lost are analysed then a glimmer of hope can be found but only for the very best prepared opponents.

“Beating Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros is one of the most difficult tasks in sports. In the 102 matches Nadal has played at the French Open, only two players have achieved this almost impossible feat. Robin Söderling did it in 2009 and Novak Djokovic overcame Nadal in 2015. How did these two players approach the match from a strategic standpoint?

“On the forehand side Djokovic hit 50% of his forehand’s crosscourt into Nadal’s backhand. While this was also Söderling’s most common type of forehand shot, he hit a lot more shots down the middle of the court. Söderling hit 27% of forehands down the middle, which is 17% more than what Djokovic did. What both Söderling and Djokovic did quite frequently was hit the inside-out forehand, using this shot 24% and 25% of the time respectively.

“Djokovic clearly targeted Nadal’s backhand with his crosscourt forehand. The idea is to break down Nadal’s weaker shot and to keep it away from the forehand. Then when he still tries to hit a forehand, he gets himself out of position. This allows you to attack into the open space with the inside-out forehand. Both players did this to great effect.

How to give yourself the best possible chance of beating Rafa Nadal“On the backhand side Djokovic’s most common shot was again going crosscourt. He used this shot 43% of the time. He also hit a lot of backhands down the line, going there 30% of the time. Söderling on the other hand used the backhand through the middle 36% of the time, as his most common backhand shot. He spread the court less frequently than Djokovic did.

“The use of the down-the-line backhand again keeps the ball away from Nadal’s forehand. The crosscourt backhand can then be used to finish the point off when Nadal is too far into the backhand corner. You probably do not want to hit the ball down the middle as often as Söderling did. Hitting in this area of the court allows Nadal to run around his backhands with greater ease. You want to get Nadal on the run and having to stretch, so he cannot dominate the rallies.

“Söderling did not hit with much spin and instead looked to hit through the court with his powerful groundstrokes. For that reason he did not have to spread the court as much as Djokovic to be effective. That being said Djokovic’s approach is probably easier to sustain in a best-of-5 match. While Söderling hit 63 winners, he also made 71 unforced errors. Djokovic was much tidier, hitting 46 winners and making only 33 unforced errors.

“All things considered, clearly any match Rafa Nadal plays at Roland Garros will be on his racket. His ridiculous record at the French Open speaks for itself. This discussion is just supposed to suggest a strategy to give his opponents the best possible chance of beating him at Roland Garros, even if that is not a good chance.”

(The data used in this article was sourced from The Tennis Abstract Match Charting Project, which is based on the work of Jeff Sackmann. The project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. No changes were made to the original data.)

Luka Elliott has a B Com in Economics & Statistics from the University of Cape Town where his thesis was titled “Engineering Features for Tennis Match Outcome Prediction in a Statistical Learning Framework”. He now writes for Tennishead focussing on how statistics effect the outcome of ATP matches

Tim Farthing, Tennishead Editorial Director & Owner, has been a huge tennis fan his whole life. He's a tennis journalist and entrepreneur as well as playing tennis to a national standard. He also helps manage his local club and volunteers for his local tennis organisation. He's a specialist in content about the administration of professional tennis and tennis coaching for all levels.