The main draw of the 2018 French Open is just hours away and Rafael Nadal is the frontrunner by far for the title. What patterns of play have contributed to the 10-time champion’s clay dominance in 2018?
In sport, few things improve with age. Yet two of the greatest players in the game, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have seemed to defy that principle since the resurgence of their rivalry in 2017.
On clay, Nadal in 2017 had one of the best clay seasons of his career, losing only 1 match in 20 events and 40 sets of 44 played. With a similarly near immaculate record in 2018, Nadal is looking as unstoppable and causing fans to wonder if we have yet to see peak Nadal on clay.
Had Nadal actually found a way to improve his clay game?
To get some sense of what Nadal is doing especially well in 2018 and what could be key to maintaining his dominance at Roland Garros, we can look at the detailed stats available from the Match Charting Project. Five of Nadal’s 2018 clay matches have been contributed to the project, including his one loss in Madrid to Dominic Thiem. It’s not a complete sample but it can still provide a sense of Nadal’s trends, especially in the later stages of events.
In terms of points won on serve, Nadal started out the season very strong, with his matches in Monte Carlo and Barcelona showing win percentages of 67 and 69%. That part of the season was characterised by a high percentage of first serve points won, both matches being well above 70%.
The loss to Thiem and his two most recent matches in Rome suggest a change in pattern. Clearly, underperforming on serve was a major factor to his defeat to Thiem, and it appears that much of that stemmed from a low first serve percentage in and low effectiveness on second serve. In Rome, Nadal’s numbers on first and second were back up, his performance on second serve being especially impressive.
We can look at the location of Nadal’s serve to get some idea of what could contribute to the variation in his effectiveness over the 2018 clay season. At the start of the season, Nadal was avoiding the body to an extreme and favoured a nearly even mix between the ‘Wide’ and ‘T’ serves on his first serve.
In his loss to Thiem, Nadal was hitting more centrally located serves, more than 20% of the time, in fact, overall. The shift away from his emphasis on the angles had to be a contributing factor to his low serve percentages in that match.
In Rome, Nadal’s serve patterns have been closer to those in his loss to Thiem than his decisive victories in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He was making a substantial number of the serves to the body and was much more predictable in his patterns on the ‘T’ and ‘Wide’. Against Djokovic, Nadal was heavily targeting the forehand with the elbow injury; while against Zverev he was going ‘Wide’ nearly twice as often as down the ‘T’. Nadal found a way to win those matches despite these patterns, but they were definitely shakier wins than any others this season.
Nadal’s return game is where he most separates himself from his opponents. In his first two charted clay matches in 2018, Nadal was winning 48% and 50% of points on return, essentially erasing any serve advantage from his opponents. That edge was nearly absent in his loss to Thiem, showing that high return effectiveness is a major and necessary weapon for Nadal.
His return stats weren’t much better in his win over Djokovic mostly due to relative underperformance on the second return. Against, Zverev, Nadal seemed to be back to his form at the start of the clay season, which could have a lot to do with Zverev not having a good enough serve strategy against Nadal on clay.
If we breakdown the location of Nadal’s serve return, it seems to provide some explanation to his return effectiveness patterns across this matches. The depth of Nadal’s return, in particular, appears to have coincided quite closely with his win percentage on return. '
Defining ‘deep’ as anything landing beyond the service box, Nadal was getting nearly 9 of 10 first and second return shots deep in his first two charted matches. He wasn’t able to hit those highs on both the first and second return in any of the next 3, the short return ball being especially notable in his loss to Thiem.
If Nadal is going to play with the kind of efficiency he did in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, going for angles on his serve and keeping his returns deep could both be essential.