Inside Rafael Nadal's Mind When He's Serving
Tennis is a game of primary and secondary patterns that are heavily dictated by point score.
When players want to get ahead, or when they feel they really need a point, they tend to gravitate to high percentage primary patterns of play that they know will deliver a winning percentage.
When they are already ahead in the score, are looking to confuse the opponent or are in a position where they can afford to lose the point, they generally throw in a lower percentage secondary pattern of play.
An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of Rafael Nadal’s first-serve patterns in 2019 highlights exactly how the Spaniard successfully mixed strategies between primary and secondary patterns to keep opponents off balance. The serve location data set comes from ATP Masters 1000 events in 2019 and the recent Nitto ATP Finals.
First-Serve Location: Love All
This is a perfect time to run a primary pattern, which for Nadal, means a slice first serve down the T. That’s exactly what he gravitated to more than six times out of 10 this season. The thinking here is to start the game on the right foot with what he knows best and surge to 15/0 as many times as possible.
Nadal First-Serve Direction Love All
Wide = 25.4% (45)
Body = 13.0% (23)
T = 61.6% (109)
Nadal won 90 per cent of his service games in 2019, and if he went ahead 15/0, that metric elevated to 94 per cent (473/502). But when Nadal next returns to the Deuce Court after completing two points, his mindset is very much dictated by the point score.
First-Serve Location: 15/15
At 15/15, it’s essentially the same point score and mentality as Love All, and therefore Nadal largely sticks with the same game plan. It’s back to the primary pattern of slicing the first serve down the T and looking to follow it up with his lethal Serve +1 forehand, although Nadal mixes up his serve location at 15/15 more so than at Love All.
Nadal First-Serve Direction 15/15
Wide = 36.1% (26)
Body = 12.5% (9)
T = 51.4% (37)
First-Serve Location 30/0
If Nadal won the opening two points of his service game in 2019, he was almost unstoppable, winning 98 per cent (346/354). He is basically a lock from this point score, so he has the breathing room to be creative with his serve direction. Nadal’s No. 1 target now shifts out wide in the Deuce Court.
Nadal First-Serve Direction 30/0
Wide = 51.6% (33)
Body = 6.2% (4)
T = 42.2% (27)
First-Serve Location 0/30
At 0/30, the alarm bells are ringing a little, but Nadal still is favoured to win the game. In 2019, he won 61 per cent (46/76) of his service games from 0/30.
Nadal First-Serve Direction 0/30
Wide = 48.8% (20)
Body = 14.6% (6)
T = 36.6% (15)
What’s interesting is that the serve location mix was more even than the other point scores, but there were more first serves out wide than down the T (20-15).
These numbers are clear examples of the guessing game of serve location going on between Nadal and the returner. The returner will be guessing T, which is Nadal’s favourite location (same for almost all lefties in the Deuce Court), because Nadal is down 0/30 in the point score and “needs the point”.
But Nadal also sees this as an opportunity to surprise, so he primarily targets the location the returner is least expecting. This cat and mouse game of first-serve location linked to the point score is played out at all levels of our sport around the world.
When people talk about the “mental game” of tennis, you need to look no further than the World No. 1 beginning his service games.