Here’s How Nadal Plays Tennis Like A Chess Grandmaster

  • Posted: May 22, 2020

Here’s How Nadal Plays Tennis Like A Chess Grandmaster

Rafa dictates patterns of play in 5-8 shot rallies

The perfect storm in a tennis match is Rafael Nadal hitting either three of four balls into the court.

Not more. Not less.

Just three or four moves is all it takes for the Spaniard to lure his opponents into checkmate.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis shows that Nadal is in a class of his own in mid-length rallies of 5-8 shots. The data set is comprised of players who competed in a minimum of 20 matches at ATP events on Hawk Eye courts from the beginning of the 2018 season.

The three rally lengths commonly measured in tennis are:

•0-4 Shots (First Strike)
•5-8 Shots (Patterns Of Play)
•9+ Shots (Extended Rallies)

It’s important to note that rally length in our sport is predicated by the ball landing in the court, not hitting the strings. So a “three-shot” rally is a serve in, a return in, and a winner, while a “two-shot” rally is a serve in, a return in, and an error. That explains a “zero-shot” rally, which is a double fault. The ball simply didn’t land in the court.

The inner workings of Nadal’s formidable game can be best understood when it’s dissected by how many shots he ideally desires to win a point. It highlights efficiency and intent.

Nadal won a head-turning 59.7 per cent (652/1092) of points in the 5-8 shot range from 33 matches. Next best is Diego Schwartzman at 55.9 per cent (547/978), putting the Spaniard almost four percentage points higher than his closest rival. Novak Djokovic sits in third place, having won 55.5 per cent (1043/1879) in 5-8 shot rallies.

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The leaders in the three rally lengths are:

•0-4 Shots: Daniil Medvedev (55.0%)
•5-8 Shots = Rafael Nadal (59.7%)
•9+ Shots = Yoshihito Nishioka (56.6%)

Mid-length rallies of 5-8 shots (3-4 shots for each player) are all about specific patterns of play, much like moves on a chess board. The first shot involves the serve or return, where Nadal is typically targeting his opponent’s backhand return, or moving way back in the court for his own return to enhance his chances of putting it successfully back in play. His second shot is all about taking a 50-50 battle and “arm-wrestling” it in his favor.

There are eight ways to attack an opponent and gain control of the point.

Eight Control Factors In A Rally


Control Factor





















Court Position

Where You Stand



Time To Prepare

Nadal’s third shot of the rally typically involves a potent cocktail of two or more of the control factors, mentioned above, infused into the same shot. For example, he loves to hit a run-around forehand standing in the Deuce court directed cross court past his opponent’s outstretched forehand wing. That specific shot, which he has executed tens of thousands of times in his career, is a crushing mix of direction, spin, power and court position.

If Nadal needs a fourth shot to reach “checkmate”, his court position is typically inside the baseline taking time away with wicked spin and direction back behind a running opponent. Nadal is much better off running these three- and four-shot combinations than trying to end the point quicker, or trying to outlast his opponent.

Nadal Win Percentages By Rally Length

•0-4 Shots = 52.9% (1126/2127)
•5-8 Shots = 59.7% (652/1092)
•9+ Shots = 55.3% (412/745)

The Spaniard’s game is not built around massive power in the first two shots. It is also not best suited to grinding endlessly in long rallies, where win percentages naturally gravitate closer together than further apart.

It’s all about patterns. It’s about a successful sequence of shots that out-smart and out-maneuver opponents to achieve his desired end-game with three or four moves.

Nadal is our sport’s Grandmaster chess champion.

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