Throughout his career, Rafael Nadal focussed on getting his 1st serve right by playing a little safe. On grass, he has had the highest of the 1st service % amongst the Big 3 at 69% followed by Djokovic at 67% and Federer at 66% which means Federer took the highest risk while serving going for the lines and as a result won 80% of points on first serve followed by Djokovic at 77% and Nadal at 75%.
A weaker first serve meant, Nadal needed to up the ante when he had to get the second serve out. A stronger second serve meant he won 59% of his points on the second serve, as many as Federer, followed by Djokovic at 56%.
By doing so Nadal was able to offset his numbers enough to surpass Djokovic in his service game but still remained at 2nd behind Federer which is evident from the % of service games won, where Federer leads the tally at 93% followed by Nadal at 90% and Djokovic at 89%.
Federer tries to win a lot more free points on his serve against top players to compensate for better overall baseline/returning game of the top players.
The trend for each of the service metrics is similar for all three when seen for top 10 players vs All players, except 1st serve %, where Federer sees a dip in 1st serve % against the top 10 players which correlates to much higher Aces/match that Federer serves against top 10 players.
Federer tries to win a lot more free points on his serve against top players to compensate for better overall baseline/returning game of the top players. This goes to show the criticality of additional free points that Federer wins through Aces against top players. It most probably has been the true differentiator for him against top 10 players as we have seen time and again.
What has changed?
It is 2019, and here they are, 15 to 20 years after making their professional debuts, these guys are still at the top of their game, into the semi-finals of Wimbledon with Djokovic being the favourite to win.
With already amazingly good records and stats, was it possible for 32, 33 and 37-year-olds to further improve and make super talented next-gen youngsters look like amateurs?
The answer is an astounding Yes.
If we see these metrics for last one year on grass, it can be seen that Rafael Nadal further worked on his strength, his second serve, to improve the points won on seconds serve by a significant 4.9%. Federer realised that his service is one of the most important aspects of his game, worked on both his 1st and 2nd serve showing 0.7% and 3.4% increase respectively. Djokovic decided to work on getting only his first serve better, and that too at the cost of an already poor second serve.
It is amazing how a mere 0.7% improvement in serve ensured a 4.5% more point won for Federer. Federer clearly got more aggressive, not just on incremental serves but on all serves and started to move more towards net in order to achieve the desired numbers.
Astonishingly, it is Nadal who leads the pack when it comes to % service games won against top 10 ranked players at an unprecedented 93% followed by Djokovic at 91% and Federer at 88%
It isn’t surprising that Nadal’s 1st serve % dropped and along with it dropped the % points won. What’s surprising is the increase in % points won against top 10 ranked opponents despite drop in 1st serve %. It goes to show that Nadal too followed Federer and became much more aggressive on shots after the serve to ensure points are shorter and go in his favour. However, it is Nadal’s second serve which has done wonders in last one year on grass.
A 5% increase in 2nd serve points won leading to 5.5% overall service games won. It is a prime example of a strength being taken to another level. Astonishingly, it is Nadal who leads the pack when it comes to % service games won against top 10 ranked players at an unprecedented 93% followed by Djokovic at 91% and Federer at 88%.
Federer’s strategy of improving both his serves worked unbelievably well (95% service games won) against most opponents, did not reap similar benefits against top 10 opponents. Djokovic’s strategy of focussing on only his first serve worked well too, especially against top 10 ranked players.
There was another thing Djokovic has been able to do recently that Federer was already doing. The Serb started getting more free points against top players compared to other opponents. Djokovic served as many as 15 aces/match against top 10 players compared to 10 against all opponents just like Federer who further improved this stat in last one year at 17 vs. 10.
We hear quite frequently the following statement –
Novak Djokovic, the greatest returner the game has ever seen. The Serbian wasn’t always at the top of the chart, not on grass against those who mattered, but the improvement he has shown to become the force that he is, is nothing short of miraculous.
As it is seen through multiple metrics, how Nadal gets better as the opponents gets stronger, it is most visible when it comes to most important of the return metrics on grass. Nadal is the worst when comes to return games won against all players at 23% with Federer at 24% and Djokovic at 26%, but he manages to become the best of the three against top 10 ranked players, with 21% return games won, with Federer languishing at 14% and Djokovic at 19%. It also validates what we all know, most grass court specialists who are fast servers have generally not been top 10 players, at least not in last 2 decades, and they have caused more trouble for Nadal than any of the top players could.
Nadal is also the leader on grass against top 10 opponents when it comes to returning second serves and breakpoints conversion. Basically, Nadal has always lead the pack against top players when it comes to returning metrics and that is why Nadal has always been threatening at Wimbledon when he has reached the second week.
What has changed?
When seeing numbers for last one year over the numbers for the whole career, it becomes very clear what is it that makes Novak Djokovic the player that he is, the menacing base-liner who returns, defends relentlessly and then wins the point by causing an error or attacking when no one expects.
Federer has never been a great returner and his returning credentials have only gone down. Even though he now wins 1.5% more points on 1st serve returns, the % of return games won has gone down by 1.2% against all players and by a significant 5.6% against top 10 players.
Nadal has throughout been a returning leader on the grass and still continues to be when it comes to all players showing a 3.7% more return point won on 1st serve leading to 4.2% return games won. However, it is exact reversal of fortunes when it comes to top-ranked players. His aggressive brand of tennis seems to do the damage against most players except the top players who are generally good base-liners where he too like Federer now loses 5.6% more return games.
Age and all these years seems to have caught up with these masters at least for one of the important metrics, yet the drop is not good enough for them to be out of contention.
Against all players Djokovic has won in last one year compared to career stats, 5.5% more return points on 1st serve, 3.5% more points on 2nd serve leading to a whopping 7.7% more return games wins.
Most returning metrics have gone down for Federer and the story for Nadal is a mixed one, it is here that Djokovic gets the better of the two and this is what eventually turns out to be the real differentiator and this is what makes Novak Djokovic as invincible on grass as on hard courts at the moment.
Against all players Djokovic has won in last one year compared to career stats, 5.5% more return points on 1st serve, 3.5% more points on 2nd serve leading to a whopping 7.7% more return games wins. Nadal’s improvement is still comparable to that of Djokovic against all players but it is the top players, the one who matter, to win titles, against whom the difference between Djokovic and the other two gets unbelievably wide, today.
Where Nadal and Federer have shown significant drop in the % return games won, Djokovic has shown no signs that his age is causing his elasticity, fitness and hence his returning prowess to drop.
What all of this means?
In the short run, whoever meets Djokovic (assuming Agut doesn’t play the match of his life) in the final will have to serve at their peak, attack as much on second serve in response to Djokovic’s weak second serve return and return well enough to cause a few extra errors out of Djokovic, to have any chance at lifting the title.
In the long run, Federer is a freak of nature and he can effortlessly serve and close points for a few more years, but as some battles would get intense against top players, his return game will be tested a lot more and he is more likely going to end up on the losing side.
Nadal has been able to show remarkable improvement in his second serve and has become more aggressive, making him less vulnerable to shock losses on grass now than before. He is at the moment able to compensate for his drop in level of his return game by making some tactical shifts but it may also not last long. His return game against top players is only going to go further down with time.
Djokovic, like Nadal and Federer has shown improvement in service and has been getting lot more free points. What makes the outlook for him more positive than the other two is how he is showing almost no sign of decline in his return game against top players and the improvement against other players is so enormous that he ends up demolishing most of the opponents in turn keeping him relatively fresher.
As difficult as it gets for a Rafael Nadal fan like me to write, all of us, the fans of the game instinctively believe that Djokovic has it in him to not only surpass Nadal but also Federer’s tally of grand slam titles, the view is only validated by above numbers on grass, his second best surface. Djokovic’s dip hasn’t yet begun. He probably has a couple of more years at his peak. What all Nadal and Federer fans fear is almost certain to happen.
Himanshu Shekhar Mishra is a Digital Product Manager based out of Gurgaon, crazy about Tennis, Football, Photography, and Cinema. He is a huge fan of Rafael Nadal and Liverpool. His email ID is firstname.lastname@example.org
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