Nadal is More Predictable on Serve Under Pressure

We are looking forward to two classic finals in the men’s and women’s events at this year’s Australian Open. The men’s matchup will be the 35th meeting of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and their 22nd meeting in a tournament final.

Nadal earned his spot in the final by prevailing over an on-the-rise Grigor Dimitrov in a spectacular five-set, four-hour plus semifinal. There were many takeaways from that match but the one that stood out most to me when thinking about the upcoming final was Nadal’s serve patterns.

One of the aspects of Nadal’s game that seems to be the most improved at the start of the 2017 season is his serve. Nadal has been serving and winning on first serve at around 75% or more in his AO matches, numbers that put him on par with John Isner and Ivo Karlovic. Those gains aren’t because Nadal is hitting harder or more accurately. It is that he is playing less predictably. For a long time, players have known that they could expect Nadal to go to the backhand (for right-handers) the majority of the time but this year he has kept them more on their toes.

Despite that improvement, we all know Nadal’s game can suffer under pressure. Jim Courier made an interesting comment in his coverage of the semifinal match when he concluded that Nadal was reverting back to his more predictable serve patterns after Dimitrov had taken the second set. Was Courier right?

When we look at the ratio with which Nadal has gone to the backhand-preferring side (Wide on Ad and T on Deuce) we see that he has generally had a 3 to 1 preference of more in previous Australian Opens. However, in tighter matches going to 5 sets, that predictable pattern has shot up dramatically.

This year, Nadal’s predictability, up to the semifinal, has generally been down, making him much more effective on serve.

But when we focus on his semifinal match, we see that his strategy is vulnerable under pressure, as Courier suggested. After losing the second set, Nadal went back to his old ways on the Deuce court, preferring the T serve more than 5 to 1. In the fourth and fifth, he improved on the Deuce side but was more predictable when serving to the Ad court.

If Federer can put Nadal’s back to the wall in the final, it could be a vulnerability he could exploit. That is, of course, only if Nadal can’t kick an old habit.