Brain Game: How Nadal Powered Up For Record-Breaking Australian Open Title

  • Posted: Jan 31, 2022

The points were going long. Ironically, the match was slipping fast.

Rafael Nadal orchestrated a stunning comeback in the Australian Open final to defeat Daniil Medvedev 2-6, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5. The match lasted five hours and 24 minutes and finished at 1:11 a.m. Monday morning. Figuring out the winning game plan finally materialised for the Spaniard in the dead of the night.

The length of the rally ended up being the canary in the coal mine for Nadal as you examine his performance throughout the match and the tournament. The average rally of his first six matches en route to the final was a routine 4.05 shots per point. His quarter-final victory over Denis Shapovalov was a brisk 3.11 shots per point, while his victory against Adrian Mannarino in the previous round averaged a crisp 3.55 shots per point. Rafa was clearly reaping the benefits of an attacking game style as he marched through the Melbourne draw on courts that felt liked the ball was “skidding” more than “sitting” after the bounce.

Then Medvedev turned up on the other side of the net and all the attacking went out the window.

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The Russian grounded Nadal’s aggressive game style to a screeching halt in the opening set, with the average rally length skyrocketing to 6.27 shots per point. The longest rally length to the final for Nadal was in the first round, in which he defeated Marcos Giron, averaging 4.75 shots per point.

The first set of the final seemed like the players were hitting in slow motion. Cat and mouse replaced shock and awe for the Spaniard. The slower, longer rallies stalled Nadal’s offence as he coughed up 23 errors to just 10 for Medvedev in the opening stanza. Slower speed. Different height. Reacting rather than playing on the front foot.

Set one was a grind. Set two was even more so, as the average rally length ballooned to 6.83 shots per point. Slice backhands were replacing the typical run-around forehands in the Deuce court for Nadal. A hefty 28 points were played in rallies of nine shots or more in the second set, with Medvedev winning the tie-break 7/5. They were happy to trade blows with a 40-shot rally early in the second set. Extended rallies felt like the new norm.

The deepest hole Nadal found himself in was serving at 0/40 at 2-3 in the third set. He was a heartbeat away from certain peril. Once he doggedly held serve, he started playing with more aggression and looked to force the issue more than wait for Medvedev to hand him an error.

And then the rally length came down, the power went up, and an unlikely victory was born from refusing to call it a day.

Average Rally Length By Set
Set 1 = 6.27 shots
– Set 2 = 6.83 shots
– Set 3 = 5.56 shots
– Set 4 = 5.03 shots
– Set 5 = 4.31 shots

The more Nadal sunk his teeth into the match, the more the average rally length came back to his wheelhouse, not Medvedev’s.

In the deciding fifth set, there were fewer long rallies of at least nine shots compared to any other set.

Rallies Of 9+ Shots By Set
– Set 1 = 15
– Set 2 = 28
– Set 3 = 15
– Set 4 = 12
– Set 5 = 11

One of the greatest tennis strategies of all time is to simply hang around. When things are not going your way, just hang around. Don’t go away. Things change. Seasons change. Night can turn to day. Twenty can turn to 21 if you just hang around long enough to figure out the problem at hand.

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