That was then

It’s amazing, what changes in a year. Only two seasons ago, Rafael Nadal, had Novak Djokovic’s number. Back then Djokovic, was a serious contender and great competitor, capable of scoring the occasional win against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But he wasn’t on their level when it came to the slams and subsequently lost most of those matches.

Then Nole, hit a low point. When he lost in the first round of the Miami Masters, to Olivier Rochus. This prompted him to fire his part-time coach Todd Martin and make some major changes to his training habits. Which included adapting to a gluten free diet. His results were streaky throughout the summer months but he managed to reach the semis at Wimbledon (losing to Berdych) and the finals of the US Open (losing in an epic 4 setter to Nadal.)

While this was a fantastic showing, it was evident, that he wasn’t on the same level as Federer and Nadal.

Then something incredible happened. Novak, went on a crazy winning streak. Starting with the Davis Cup in 2010, he went undefeated for 43 straight matches. Claiming seven titles, four of which were master series and the Australian Open. During this time, he beat Nadal and Federer a combined seven times. Before his winning streak finally came to a close in the semi-finals of the French Open.

Things didn’t stop there for Nole. He knocked Nadal, out of the #1 position by reaching the finals of Wimbledon. Then to add salt to the wound, he beat the Spaniard in a thrilling 4 set match. And again two months later in the US Open finals.

Now with the Australian Open underway. Djokovic is the #1 seed, defending champion, and a huge favorite to win. If Nadal, were to make the finals and set up a rematch with his longtime rival. You’d have to think things would be grim for the Spaniard. What can Nadal, do to turn this situation around?

Well, the answer is really quite simple. Nadal, is a grinder. His success, has always depended on his ability to wear down an opponent, in long, grueling rallies from the baseline. While keeping his own errors to a minimum. The problem with this strategy, is that it doesn’t work well when your opponent isn’t missing. Djokovic, is fitter than he used to be but most importantly, he’s more confident. He knows that he can stay with Rafa, even in the 30+ rallies and still be the one who strikes the winner. It’s hard to beat someone when they’re able to do that.

For Nadal, to start winning tournaments again, he’s going to have to resolve the Djokovic, problem. And while I think it’s possible for him to do this, there are several things which he absolutely must change.

The first thing is his serve. So much of tennis depends on being aggressive. Being able to get ahead in a point and keeping your opponent on the defense. That’s why the server, is always at such an advantage. They have the ability to start the point any way they choose and are usually in an attacking position, right from the first stroke. Novak Djokovic, is an exceptional returner. He’s not afraid to get in close to the baseline and take a big cut at the ball. Especially, when it’s served to his forehand. This puts tremendous pressure on Nadal, to come up with something first rate, that won’t be returned as a scorching winner by Djokovic.

Nadal’s serve was incredible at the 2010 US Open. He was getting into the 130mph range and was able to depend on it to get him out of some tricky situations. He won 73% of his first serve points in the 2010 finals compared to only 52% the following year. For Nadal, to beat Djokovic, he must maintain a high first serve percentage, while still mixing up the shot selection and keeping the average speed around 120 mph. Obviously, much easier said than done.

The other thing that is critical to his success against Djokovic, is shot placement. To take control of a point, you need to be able to get your opponent, on the run.

Here is a schematic of a tennis court. The red boxes are where Nadal needs to be able to place the ball to get on the offense. Hitting to these boxes will move Djokovic off the court, which allows Nadal to drive the next return cross-court and puts Djokovic in a coast to coast situation.

Personally, I don’t believe he’ll be able to beat Djokovic again if he doesn’t play more aggressively. Djokovic, is too confident in his ability to rally with Nadal. That old strategy of giving him the ball again and again while waiting for a mistake, doesn’t work anymore. He’s going to have to start shortening some points and finding sharper angles.

Anyway, that’s my prediction. If Nadal, can change some of those things, then I think we might start to see him become successful against the Serb. But if they make the finals, and Nadal comes out with the clay court ball retrieving strategy, look for Djokovic, to be the one lifting the trophy.

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