The Secret to Rafaello's Dominance on Clay (and how to stop it)

Sysyphus

Talk Tennis Guru
https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-secret-to-nadals-dominance-on-clay/

Rafael Nadal is likely more dominant at clay-court tennis than any other athlete is at any one thing. Winning a set, let alone a match, against Nadal on clay can seem almost hopeless. As he nears 32 years old, he’s already won 56 clay-court titles and a record 10 French Open championships — with a chance to add an 11th next week.

While his forehand is explosive and his backhand is relentless, it’s possible Nadal’s greatest advantage is that he turns an element of the game that’s a weakness for so many others into a weapon: the second serve. He has had more success on his second serve than any player in tennis history, and on clay, his prowess here is even more pronounced.

In his career, Nadal has won 56.7 percent of his second-serve points on clay. In the past year, he’s upped that percentage to 66.4 percent.Data reflects his numbers going into the French Open. On Thursday, Nadal advanced to the third round with a 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 win over Guido Pella.

For most pro players, anything better than break-even on second serve is considered good. Nadal has taken the safety net of the sport and turned it into a battle ax.

This also unlocks the secret to beating him on his favorite surface. Occasionally players can and do make Nadal more human in this area. Bringing him back to Earth by cracking into his second-serve points, players can make the King of Clay look more like … just a prince, let’s say.

This clay-court season, Nadal has lost exactly four sets of tennis. Notice what happened to the percentage of second-serve points Nadal won in those four sets:

Beating Nadal means beating back his second serve
Share of second-serve points that Rafael Nadal won in the four sets he lost on clay this season

OPPONENT SET TOURNAMENT SECOND-SERVE POINTS WON
Dominic Thiem 1st Madrid Open 40%


Dominic Thiem 2nd Madrid Open 29%


Fabio Fognini 1st Italian Open 50%


Alexander Zverev 2nd Italian Open 38%


SOURCE: ATP

In particular, Dominic Thiem, who knocked out Nadal in Madrid, was able to significantly erode Rafa’s second-serve dominance with a 7-5, 6-3 win. It was the only match Nadal lost on clay this season.

What have these players done to put a dent — however temporary — in Nadal’s second serve? To answer that question, we must first look at why it’s so dominant to begin with.

In the men’s game at the pro level, the first serve is a statistical powerhouse. It’s a guessing game for the returner — a nightmare of speed, spin and precision. When a player connects on his first serve, he usually wins the point.

When a player misses the mark, it’s time for the second serve. That’s when anything can happen and where break points are won. It’s the real contest. It’s also where Nadal is making everyone else look like fools, statistically speaking.

What makes Nadal’s second serve so good
The second-best second server on clay is John Isner, a 6-foot-10 acing titan who can hammer balls more than 150 mph. Many of the career leaders in this second-serve category are like Isner — they bring the heat.

The clay-court masters of the second serve
Career leaders in share of points won off second serves on clay courts

RK PLAYER COUNTRY SECOND-SERVE POINT WIN SHARE
1 Rafael Nadal Spain 56.7%
2 John Isner United States 55.7
3 Roger Federer Switzerland 55.5
4 Borna Coric Croatia 55.2
5 Andy Roddick United States 54.8
6 Stefanos Tsitsipas Greece 54.4
7 Juan Balcells Spain 54.3
8 Stan Wawrinka Switzerland 54.2
9 Juan Carlos Ferrero Spain 54.1
10 Thomas Muster Austria 54.0
SOURCE: ATP

But Rafa’s not about speed on the serve. He’s not even close to the ATP Tour leaders in aces. In fact, his 1.9 career aces per match on clay is the lowest on the table above. (Isner’s rate is 16.3.) Nadal averages around 110 to 115 mph on his first serve and less than 100 mph on this statistically dominant second serve. Very meh speeds.

The elements that make his second serve so crushing, particularly on clay, are part intuitive and part mystery. Nadal plays left-handed — a topsy-turvy problem for players conditioned to a world full of right-handed serves. A lefty slice serve travels the opposite way of what players are used to.

But slice isn’t the menace on clay that it is elsewhere because players have more time to get to balls on this surface. So if slice is mitigated, why would Nadal’s lefty slice be more potent on clay?

John Yandell is a tennis editor and coach who has examined the spins and techniques of hundreds of professional tennis players. He analyzed Nadal’s serve spins and concluded that while Nadal’s second serve “has an element of topspin” and is “heavy” at around 4,000 rotations per minute, it’s not categorically different from other serves on tour, which combine slice and topspin.

“Most likely it’s just Rafa,” Yandell said. “What he does after he puts the serve in play.”

So the secret could be in what he’s doing when that second serve comes back — a shot sometimes called “the plus-one.”

How to win points off his second serve
Rafa has become a master at managing space on European red clay, where balls travel so far off the bounce that the court plays bigger and wider. On returns, he famously stands far back behind the baseline to take a big swing at the serve, then repositions himself according to where his shot lands. Though he can’t start deep behind the baseline when he serves, he uses that same repositioning approach with his plus-one shot, taking advantage of errors by overzealous returners to dominate these second-serve points.

At the French Open on Tuesday, Nadal won a straight-sets victory in what was considered a tough first-round match. He not only took 62 percent of second-serve points, he also tempted Simone Bolelli into going for too much on those points and committing an unforgivable 23 errors — with only four winners.

So what about the tougher competition? In Rome on May 19, Nadal faced Novak Djokovic, one of the greatest returners in tennis. The two clashed intensely before Nadal won the first set in a tiebreak. It was a set in which Nadal hit a lot of second serves and won his usual high percentage of second-serve points. It’s also a good case study in what Nadal does so well here in terms of positioning.

In this video, Nadal’s second serve puts Djokovic in a defensive position early. An extended rally ensues until Nadal sees his opportunity to step into the court and strike with a forehand winner.


But even what Djokovic did above is preferable to the alternative, which is missing the return all together. If you can prolong the rally, at least you have a fighting chance: Contrary to his reputation, Nadal doesn’t do nearly as well in long rallies as he does in short ones.

Take note, Rafa challengers.
 
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Sysyphus

Talk Tennis Guru
By FiveThirtyEight's standards this perhaps leaves a bit to be desired – not groundbreaking, Nadal wins a lot of second serve points, and it's not so much the serve as how he backs it up – but thought I'd share it nevertheless.
 

Fedinkum

Legend
Couldn’t op just say Nadal is very good (exceptionally good) at keeping the ball in play until opponents makes error...Nadal is basically an exceptionally good clay court player.
 

Sysyphus

Talk Tennis Guru
Couldn’t op just say Nadal is very good (exceptionally good) at keeping the ball in play until opponents makes error...Nadal is basically an exceptionally good clay court player.
Nadal clearly does far more than wait for the opponent to make an error.

Funnily, if you'd read to the end, they address your point:

"If you can prolong the rally, at least you have a fighting chance: Contrary to his reputation, Nadal doesn't do nearly as well in long rallies as he does in short ones."

They link to this article by Craig O'Shannessy which underlines this point:

"Our eyes remember the long, spectacular rallies, but quickly forget the short rallies – even dismissing them as not important to the final outcome.

Make no mistake about it, Nadal found his way to the finish line first by forging his advantage in the short rallies much more than the longer ones."
 
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Fedinkum

Legend
Nadal clearly does far more than wait for the opponent to make an error.

Funnily, if you'd read to the end, they address your point:

"If you can prolong the rally, at least you have a fighting chance: Contrary to his reputation, Nadal doesn't do nearly as well in long rallies as he does in short ones."

They link to this article by Craig O'Shannessy which underlines this point:

"Our eyes remember the long, spectacular rallies, but quickly forget the short rallies – even dismissing them as not important to the final outcome.

Make no mistake about it, Nadal found his way to the finish line first by forging his advantage in the short rallies much more than the longer ones."
humm....interesting...I will look out for those short point in the coming week.
 

Sudacafan

G.O.A.T.
https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-secret-to-nadals-dominance-on-clay/

Rafael Nadal is likely more dominant at clay-court tennis than any other athlete is at any one thing. Winning a set, let alone a match, against Nadal on clay can seem almost hopeless. As he nears 32 years old, he’s already won 56 clay-court titles and a record 10 French Open championships — with a chance to add an 11th next week.

While his forehand is explosive and his backhand is relentless, it’s possible Nadal’s greatest advantage is that he turns an element of the game that’s a weakness for so many others into a weapon: the second serve. He has had more success on his second serve than any player in tennis history, and on clay, his prowess here is even more pronounced.

In his career, Nadal has won 56.7 percent of his second-serve points on clay. In the past year, he’s upped that percentage to 66.4 percent.Data reflects his numbers going into the French Open. On Thursday, Nadal advanced to the third round with a 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 win over Guido Pella.

For most pro players, anything better than break-even on second serve is considered good. Nadal has taken the safety net of the sport and turned it into a battle ax.

This also unlocks the secret to beating him on his favorite surface. Occasionally players can and do make Nadal more human in this area. Bringing him back to Earth by cracking into his second-serve points, players can make the King of Clay look more like … just a prince, let’s say.

This clay-court season, Nadal has lost exactly four sets of tennis. Notice what happened to the percentage of second-serve points Nadal won in those four sets:

Beating Nadal means beating back his second serve
Share of second-serve points that Rafael Nadal won in the four sets he lost on clay this season

OPPONENT SET TOURNAMENT SECOND-SERVE POINTS WON
Dominic Thiem 1st Madrid Open 40%


Dominic Thiem 2nd Madrid Open 29%


Fabio Fognini 1st Italian Open 50%


Alexander Zverev 2nd Italian Open 38%


SOURCE: ATP

In particular, Dominic Thiem, who knocked out Nadal in Madrid, was able to significantly erode Rafa’s second-serve dominance with a 7-5, 6-3 win. It was the only match Nadal lost on clay this season.

What have these players done to put a dent — however temporary — in Nadal’s second serve? To answer that question, we must first look at why it’s so dominant to begin with.

In the men’s game at the pro level, the first serve is a statistical powerhouse. It’s a guessing game for the returner — a nightmare of speed, spin and precision. When a player connects on his first serve, he usually wins the point.

When a player misses the mark, it’s time for the second serve. That’s when anything can happen and where break points are won. It’s the real contest. It’s also where Nadal is making everyone else look like fools, statistically speaking.

What makes Nadal’s second serve so good
The second-best second server on clay is John Isner, a 6-foot-10 acing titan who can hammer balls more than 150 mph. Many of the career leaders in this second-serve category are like Isner — they bring the heat.

The clay-court masters of the second serve
Career leaders in share of points won off second serves on clay courts

RK PLAYER COUNTRY SECOND-SERVE POINT WIN SHARE
1 Rafael Nadal Spain 56.7%
2 John Isner United States 55.7
3 Roger Federer Switzerland 55.5
4 Borna Coric Croatia 55.2
5 Andy Roddick United States 54.8
6 Stefanos Tsitsipas Greece 54.4
7 Juan Balcells Spain 54.3
8 Stan Wawrinka Switzerland 54.2
9 Juan Carlos Ferrero Spain 54.1
10 Thomas Muster Austria 54.0
SOURCE: ATP

But Rafa’s not about speed on the serve. He’s not even close to the ATP Tour leaders in aces. In fact, his 1.9 career aces per match on clay is the lowest on the table above. (Isner’s rate is 16.3.) Nadal averages around 110 to 115 mph on his first serve and less than 100 mph on this statistically dominant second serve. Very meh speeds.

The elements that make his second serve so crushing, particularly on clay, are part intuitive and part mystery. Nadal plays left-handed — a topsy-turvy problem for players conditioned to a world full of right-handed serves. A lefty slice serve travels the opposite way of what players are used to.

But slice isn’t the menace on clay that it is elsewhere because players have more time to get to balls on this surface. So if slice is mitigated, why would Nadal’s lefty slice be more potent on clay?

John Yandell is a tennis editor and coach who has examined the spins and techniques of hundreds of professional tennis players. He analyzed Nadal’s serve spins and concluded that while Nadal’s second serve “has an element of topspin” and is “heavy” at around 4,000 rotations per minute, it’s not categorically different from other serves on tour, which combine slice and topspin.

“Most likely it’s just Rafa,” Yandell said. “What he does after he puts the serve in play.”

So the secret could be in what he’s doing when that second serve comes back — a shot sometimes called “the plus-one.”

How to win points off his second serve
Rafa has become a master at managing space on European red clay, where balls travel so far off the bounce that the court plays bigger and wider. On returns, he famously stands far back behind the baseline to take a big swing at the serve, then repositions himself according to where his shot lands. Though he can’t start deep behind the baseline when he serves, he uses that same repositioning approach with his plus-one shot, taking advantage of errors by overzealous returners to dominate these second-serve points.

At the French Open on Tuesday, Nadal won a straight-sets victory in what was considered a tough first-round match. He not only took 62 percent of second-serve points, he also tempted Simone Bolelli into going for too much on those points and committing an unforgivable 23 errors — with only four winners.

So what about the tougher competition? In Rome on May 19, Nadal faced Novak Djokovic, one of the greatest returners in tennis. The two clashed intensely before Nadal won the first set in a tiebreak. It was a set in which Nadal hit a lot of second serves and won his usual high percentage of second-serve points. It’s also a good case study in what Nadal does so well here in terms of positioning.

In this video, Nadal’s second serve puts Djokovic in a defensive position early. An extended rally ensues until Nadal sees his opportunity to step into the court and strike with a forehand winner.


But even what Djokovic did above is preferable to the alternative, which is missing the return all together. If you can prolong the rally, at least you have a fighting chance: Contrary to his reputation, Nadal doesn’t do nearly as well in long rallies as he does in short ones.

Take note, Rafa challengers.
OK, the description of the process is interesting, but... what to do when Rafa hits a second serve in order to maximize the chances of winning the points. That was not very clear to me. What would be a winning strategy in that situation?
 

West Coast Ace

G.O.A.T.
The 538 guy must be tired of guessing wrong on politics - now they’re going to fail at sports.

Nadal wins because players are so worried about the high bouncing FH that they aren’t prepared for the short balls and thus don’t attack them. And watch - Nadal hits plenty of shots that barely clear the service line.

Also, players still play way too many balls to his FH. Last yr at the USO he had no remorse hitting 80+ percent of his shots to Delpo’s weak BH; players should be doing the same to him (his BH isn’t as weak as Delpo’s was last yr - but way weaker than the Nadal FH). Make him beat you with his weaker shot.
 

Meles

Bionic Poster
OK, the description of the process is interesting, but... what to do when Rafa hits a second serve in order to maximize the chances of winning the points. That was not very clear to me. What would be a winning strategy in that situation?
Moya has him with a lot more variety on 2nd serve so its hard to guess where he might go. This is the number one thing, so a lot of the analysis here in the OP article is called into question by this known fact.
 

-snake-

Professional
The 538 guy must be tired of guessing wrong on politics - now they’re going to fail at sports.

Nadal wins because players are so worried about the high bouncing FH that they aren’t prepared for the short balls and thus don’t attack them. And watch - Nadal hits plenty of shots that barely clear the service line.

Also, players still play way too many balls to his FH. Last yr at the USO he had no remorse hitting 80+ percent of his shots to Delpo’s weak BH; players should be doing the same to him (his BH isn’t as weak as Delpo’s was last yr - but way weaker than the Nadal FH). Make him beat you with his weaker shot.


Ehm, The Nadal hits 99% of his FHs (unless you are named Zvepush) to your BH. That and grinding you down are his only tactics. The only way to beat him is blowing him off the court, or abusing his BH (like you said). The problem is, he's a lefty and he can run around his weaker side more easily to hit another FH, and restart his moonballing routine. He's predictable AF. Even that Chokepovalov kid exposed this robotic pattern of play. Did you see how Capy was constantly targeting Denis' FH last year? It was hilarious.
 

RF-18

G.O.A.T.
Nadal is a better player now than ever was, especially on clay. He has really got himself together and improved his game.
 

Gary Duane

G.O.A.T.
Moya has him with a lot more variety on 2nd serve so its hard to guess where he might go. This is the number one thing, so a lot of the analysis here in the OP article is called into question by this known fact.
The number one factor: Almost any decent player on tour wins more than 50% of 2nd serve points. A 2nd serve has to be pitiful before the returner has an advantage.

But when a player with a ton of weapons is backing up that 2nd serve, a guy who is a great returner, you can expect those stats to go up and up and up.

Look at this list:

http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/stats/2nd-serve-points-won/all/hard/all/

Look where Courier and Agassi are, and bear in mind that this stat is higher today because of poly. More spin, more safety. Then you get the bots plus Roddick, who I would label as semi-bot.

The reason Nadal is not in GOAT territory on fast surfaces is directly related to his return, which is much weaker on them. And, by the way, some of those missing return skills on fast surfaces hurt him a bit backing up serves on fast surfaces. Which is why Fed is on top of this list:

http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/stats/2nd-serve-points-won/all/grass/all/
 
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