How Novak Djokovic, the best returner, tackled Rafael Nadal’s new serve

How Novak Djokovic, the best returner, tackled Rafael Nadal’s new serve

The key to the 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 demolition job was how the returner supreme dealt with Nadal's improved serves.

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Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and Spain’s Rafael Nadal with their trophies after the match. (Reuters)

Playing a flawless game of tennis in the Australian Open final, Novak Djokovic attacked Rafael Nadal’s backhand, made use of angles and the elements. He smacked the ball into the stiff breeze blowing through the Rod Laver Arena, and looped the ball with more spin when the wind was behind him. Nadal, on the other hand, struck his trademark spinning forehands into the wind and watched them fall short for Djokovic to whack. But the key to the 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 demolition job was how the returner supreme dealt with Nadal’s improved serves, finds Gaurav Bhatt.

After tinkering with his service motion during the injury layoff, Nadal arrived at Melbourne holding the racquet down for longer and standing up straighter. He twisted less and threw his body with a more headlong thrust. As a result, his serves spun less and skidded through the court more, causing a 5kmph increase in average speed. The low bounce meant the receiver hit back with less control and Nadal could pounce onto a weak return. The follow through was more aggressive too, as Nadal would step into the court, as opposed to on clay where he steps behind the baseline after serving. At the Australian Open, he served 6 aces per match, up from his career average of 2.9.

A wide, power lifter-like stance, the precisely-timed short hop as the opponent’s racquet makes contact with the ball, and analysing the server’s cues account for Djokovic’s explosive movement. The Serb was already the all-time best returner on hard court with a break point conversion of 45 per cent and a return games win-rate of 32.4, i.e. a break in every three games. He took those stats up a notch at the Australian open, converting 51 per cent of break points and winning 39 per cent return games. His tally of 42 break points earned was also the highest during the fortnight.

Djokovic, who has dominated big servers like John Isner and Milos Raonic wasn’t bothered by the 5kmph quicker Nadal serve. The wide serve directed at the backhand of righties like Francis Tiafoe (39 backhand returns, 26 forehand returns) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (33-21), earned Nadal free points.Nadal’s success serving to the backhand in the quarter and semifinal was 86 and 80 % respectively. Against Djokovic (36-30), it was 58 per cent.

Nadal overcorrected as the match progressed, serving more often to Djokovic’s forehand, allowing the Serb to cover the court more effectively. Also, 82 % of Djokovic’s returns were deep (43% very deep) — as opposed to Tiafoe’s 72 and Tsitsipas’ 63. The deep returns, coupled with Nadal’s movement off the serve, left the Spaniard with less time to react. He would step back to respond, leaving himself open to sharp-angled shots.