Why Djokovic Keeps Winning Against Nadal

Why Djokovic Keeps Winning Against Nadal

Novak Djokovic has done it again – it’s his fourth ATP Masters final in a row against Rafael Nadal and also a fourth win.

So what is Djokovic doing right now that consistently allows him to beat everyone including Rafael Nadal who is currently ranked #1 in the world?

Novak Djokovic beats Rafael Nadal in the Rome 2011 final
Novak Djokovic beats Rafael Nadal for the fourth consecutive time (AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO)

While we could dig deep into statistics and try to figure out all the small differences, I believe the answer is actually quite simple.

The difference is Novak’s ability to play with pace and accuracy off both sides. That’s it.

Players who are able to consistently play with high pace off both sides have been successful in the past against Nadal.

Djokovic himself has been quite successful in the past against Nadal: his first win came in 2007 at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami in quarter finals where he beat Nadal 6-3 and 6-4.

Since 2007 most of the matches were won by Nadal until 2009 when Djokovic won 4 matches in a row against Nadal – all on hard courts though.

But players with similar styles were also able to keep Nadal in trouble – surely you remember Soderling’s shocking win against Nadal at Roland Garros in 2009. Robin repeated the win at the London Finals.

Juan Martin Del Potro is another player with similar style – his head to head with Nadal is 3-6 but from 2009 it’s actually 3-3!

The aging Nikolay Davydenko actually holds a 6-4 head-to-head against Nadal and is one of the few still active players on the tour that have a positive score with Nadal.

Consider that since 2008 Davydenko actually holds a 6-2 head-to-head with Nadal – and that’s a different Nadal than when he first burst on the scene in 2003 and 2004.

So Davydenko must be doing something really well against Nadal – and that’s exactly what Djokovic is able to do – hit with pace and accuracy from both sides.

So why is pace and accuracy so effective against Nadal?

Nadal’s preferred pattern of play is to open up the court with a forehand cross court shot.

He OFTEN receives a slower – more passive type of shot – which gives him enough time to set up really well for the next shot and hit with great accuracy and power – either even more angled cross court shot or a down the line shot which is usually a clean winner.

If the opponent plays a slightly slower and neutral shot down the line from being stretched wide from the first forehand cross court shot by Nadal, then Rafa plays and excellent backhand cross court into the open court and keeps the advantage in the rally.

And if Rafa is under pressure at some point in the rally, he knows where and how to play the ball to neutralize that attack.

In most cases, he plays a higher ball to the backhand (his typical pattern against Federer) and is able to get back into a neutral situation from which he can again start building the point with his forehand.

But players with great backhands like Del Potro, Murray, Davydenko and Djokovic are immune to this tactic. A high ball to their backhand is not a big deal.

They can hit with pace even from a high contact point or take the ball earlier.

But pace is the key.

Nadal’s technique on the forehand makes it VERY difficult for him to counter pace with pace. His brushing motion to create spin is so extreme that high pace balls cause him to slightly miss-hit the ball.

That causes a loss of pace on his side – so the ball is slower and that allows his opponent to dominate the rally.

If you’ve watched the recent Djokovic – Nadal matches, you’ve probably noticed that Djokovic keeps Nadal in defense more times than Nadal does that to Djokovic.

That’s the secret to success against Nadal. Of course, the other crucial part if success is the ability to keep doing that with high consistency until the match point.

When Nadal’s opponents did that, they also won. Even Andy Roddick figured that out – but only once in his last 5 meetings with Nadal.

I do believe that Nadal can improve his game as long as he realizes what is actually happening.

Rafa is by his character EXTREMELY safe player and does not like “gambling” and going for his shots like Federer for example does.

So he keeps believing that his high percentage shots will work in the long term in the match and plays lots of shots just back trying to neutralize Djokovic.

But it isn’t working.

Djokovic cannot be neutralized with any kind of passive shot.

The only way to beat Djokovic is keep him under pressure more time and force passive shots out of him and keep dominating the rallies.

But Nadal will have to play with higher risk shots (at least in his perception) to be able to lower the risk of losing. Because higher risk shots do not also mean higher risk of losing.

Safe and slow shots actually increase the risk of losing and so do shots that are played with too high risk.

So the player’s goal is to find the optimal risk of shots – and Djokovic has found the ideal risk level of his shots while Nadal in my opinion still plays it too safe.

The recent results show that his approach is not working against currently the best player in the world.

Related posts:

Novak Djokovic Remains Unbeaten In 2011
Nikolay Davydenko – Juan Martin Del Potro ATP Final Match Analysis
How To Win Against Pushers
Taking The Initiative In Clay Court Tennis
Why Roger Federer Lost To Nadal

Essential Tennis Instruction – FREE Video Lessons on How to Improve Your Serve

This entry was posted on Sunday, May 15th, 2011 at 10:05 pm and is filed under Novak Djokovic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “Why Djokovic Keeps Winning Against Nadal”
Vladas Says:
May 16th, 2011 at 5:10 am
Hi Tomaz,
Excellent analysis again.
I have read your article about optimal risk of shots.
Can you tell something about semifinal match between Marrey and Djokovich.
How this idea is related to Novak dominance at the end of first set and Novak problems with serve in 2th and 3th set.
Did Andy find right tactic to win rallies when he heavily used slice shots to change rhythm in a point ( I am surprised that it works so well on clay surface)?
Novak lost almost every crucial point in 3th set when he put second serve. Was it better for Novak if he have used stronger and risky second serve in 3th set ( he lost second serve anyway)?


Tomaz Reply:
May 16th, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Hi Vladas,

I didn’t see the match between Djokovic and Murray so I am not sure. I think Novak may have had a letdown after the first set since it was too easy.

Then he didn’t pick up quickly enough…

I saw some return winners by Murray though in the highlights – so yes, Novak could have served a little bit harder or increased his first serve percentage.


Arturo Hernandez Says:
May 16th, 2011 at 6:58 pm
Great Post Tomaz! I agree that Nadal does not like to risk a lot. What became clear is that Nadal is unable to hit a very good backhand down the line. This a riskier shot that is usually hit a little flatter than he likes. It will be interesting to see how long Djokovic can keep it up. Sometimes these winning streaks can end badly. Remember Agassi who won the whole summer only to lose to Sampras in the US Open Final. On the other hand, he might be more like Lendl who just kept working hard until he finally started winning against his foes.


Nadal – Federer Grand Slam Final #8 – And Win #6 For Rafa | How To Play Better Tennis – Tips From A Professional Tennis Coach Says:
June 8th, 2011 at 4:23 am
[…] in order to win one point. I CAN make it happen differently.« (Djokovic on the other hand is not bothered with long rallies if he has to play […]

DrPain Says:
June 9th, 2011 at 3:44 pm
I think Tomaz said it here before, Nadal is a bit OCD – everything must be in the right place. This dictates his play. Maybe somebody could try some gamesmanship and ‘spill’ a ball before serving on break point – might see an interesting reaction…I’m sure back in the day McEnroe et al. wouldn’t have been afraid of ‘winning ugly’…Not that I’d condone such actions of course.


Novak Djokovic – Rafael Nadal Wimbledon 2011 Match Analysis | How To Play Better Tennis – Tips From A Professional Tennis Coach Says:
July 7th, 2011 at 2:46 am
[…] shared my views before why I think Novak keeps winning against Rafa, but let me go a little deeper here – and keep in mind th