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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Explained: Why long rallies will give Rafael Nadal the advantage in Australian Open final

The breakdown of rallies, in terms of points won during Friday's semi-final, showed that the advantage gravitated overwhelmingly in Nadal's favour as the rallies got longer

Written by Anil Sasi , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
January 29, 2022 4:10:12 pm
NadalNadal celebrates winning his semifinal match against Italy's Matteo Berrettini (Reuters)

‘No country for old men’. In a literal sense, the starting line of the 1926 WB Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium”, immortalised subsequently by the 2007 neo-Western Coen Bros thriller based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name, seems decisively off the theme in the Australian tennis summer.

Emerging from a six-month injury lay-off and a recent Covid-19 episode, the 35-year-old Rafael Nadal—the fourth oldest man in the Open era to reach the Australian Open final and one among only four men his age who have reached any major final—produced a near-improbable run to an Australian Open final. And as he picked apart Italy’s Matteo Berrettini, a player younger by 10 years, Nadal—the sixth seed in Melbourne—seems to have reinforced his dominance over the rallies after his lay off.

A breakdown of the rally points in the semi-final clash reveals that Nadal won 48 per cent of the short, or first strike, rallies; 58 per cent of the ‘pattern of play’, or mid-length rallies; and an overwhelming 61 per cent of the extended rallies. While Nadal is typically in a class of his own in mid-length rallies, on Friday, as rallies got longer, the older man comprehensively edged out the younger player.

The three rally lengths commonly measured in tennis are:

  • 0-4 shots (First Strike)
  • 5-8 shots (mid-length rallies/Patterns of Play)
  • 9+ shots (Extended Rallies)

The breakdown of rallies, in terms of points won during Friday’s semi-final, showed that the advantage gravitated overwhelmingly in Nadal’s favour as the rallies got longer:

  • 0-4 shots: Nadal won 56 of the 117 points (48%)
  • 5-8 shots: Nadal won 28 out of the 48 points (58%)
  • 9+ shots: Nadal won 24 out of the 39 points (61%)

More remarkably, his stats at the SF in Melbourne seems even better than some earlier comparisons. An Infosys ATP ‘Beyond The Numbers’ analysis by Craig O’Shannessy of datasets of players who competed in a minimum of 20 matches at ATP events on Hawk Eye courts from the beginning of the 2018 season dissected Nadal’s win percentages by rally length. The data showed him to be way more dominant in the mid-length rallies of 5-8 shots.

  • 0-4 Shots = 52.9% (1126/2127)
  • 5-8 Shots = 59.7% (652/1092)
  • 9+ Shots = 55.3% (412/745)

Nadal won an overwhelming 59.7 per cent of points in the 5-8 shot range from 33 matches, with Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman coming in as next best at 55.9 per cent (547/978), putting the Spaniard almost four percentage points higher than his closest rival. Novak Djokovic came in at third place, having won 55.5 per cent (1043/1879) in 5-8 shot rallies in that analysis.

While the Spaniard’s game is clearly not focussed on full-on power in the first two shots, Nadal’s game has also been cited as not being best suited to endlessly long rallies, where win percentages typically settle in closer together than further apart. This assumption seemed to get reinforced as he got older. His foot injury and Covid recovery phase only buttressed the view.


But on Sunday, as Nadal looks to compete for his 21st grand slam title and the chance to break ahead of the 20 titles that he currently shares with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev will have some food for thought.

Nadal’s post-layoff effectiveness in the extended rallies that are stretching, and crushing, much younger men. At 25, Medvedev too is 10 years younger than Nadal. But at the Rod Laver Arena, only time will tell if age is just a number which will not influence the outcome of the match.

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