Roger Federer Rafa Nadal and ‘the leftie strategy’

Tomorrow in Melbourne we have arguably the biggest tennis match of all time, Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal. The Roger/Rafa grand slam final rivalry has been on hold since the French open in 2011 and I would say most fans thought that we would never see it again. How will the tactical battle in this match play out? What will Rafa do to Roger and how will Roger cope with this?

Before we get started on tomorrow’s final, a big congratulations to Serena Williams who today won her 23rd grand slam title defeating her sister Venus. Serena was too strong in the key battles we discussed in yesterday’s post (http://betatennis.com/the-strategies-behind-winning-the-blast-from-the-past-aussie-open-finals/) even though she struggled with nerves and the uneasy feeling of trying to defeat her sister and best friend, Venus. The younger of the Williams sister is now odds on to pass Margaret Courts’ 24 titles and become without doubt the greatest of all time! Also a huge well done to John Peers and Henri Kontinen in the men’s doubles, beating the legendary Bryan Brothers in the final today. I was lucky enough to be courtside to watch Peers and Kontinen in their 1st round match and their on court positioning is key to them winning their maiden grand slam title. You can read the analysis of their on court positioning here  http://betatennis.com/how-the-top-doubles-players-in-the-world-start-the-point/

Ok back to Roger and Rafa! In past match ups between the pair there has been clear tactics from Nadal…attack the backhand of Federer. Now, you don’t have to be a genius to figure this one out. But how does the Spaniard go about his business when he comes up against Federer? He will use what I like to call ‘the leftie strategy’. There are 4 patterns of play that Rafa will use within this strategy to try and break down Roger:

Deuce Side Serving

Rafa will serve down the tee on the deuce side to get Roger on his backhand return. The angle with which the return comes back will allow Rafa to hit a forehand more often than not and he will then hit this shot into the ad side (and Roger’s backhand) constantly, where he will be on the move into his weaker shot. This will put Rafa on top of the point immediately, controlling with his forehand. He can also then mix up his 1st shot forehand by sometimes going back in behind Roger to keep him off balance.

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Ad Side Serving

Rafa will serve wide on the ad side again into the backhand of Roger. Letfie spin on this side can be tricky to handle and it will make it tough for Roger to hit consistently good returns. Because the return will come back neutral, Rafa will again be able to run around and play his forehand from most positions in the court. From here he can destabilise Roger’s position almost every time. He has the space to go into the deuce side and make Roger run into his forehand. And once Roger starts moving early for this one he can go back behind into the backhand and get him stuck into the ad side corner.

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2nd Serve Return

You can be sure Rafa will be doing everything he can to play a forehand off the Federer’s 2nd serve. He will be happy to give up court position to allow him time to get around the serve because once he has it on his forehand he will hit it with heavy spin into Roger’s backhand. Once Roger is pinned on his backhand side Rafa will again be on top of the point right from the start.

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Open Play

Once the serve/return has been played, Rafa will look to situate himself in his forehand half (the ad side) and play heavy/spin crosscourt to Roger’s backhand and when he is ready, he will play fast and flatter into the deuce side. The spin and positioning of the shots Rafa will hit will keep him in control of the points. As with the serve spin, the leftie forehand spin coming into Roger’s one-handed backhand is very tough to handle and this is the situation Rafa would like to create as often as possible.

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This leftie strategy has paid off many times over for Rafa in past match ups between the two. But what can Roger do to stop the rot and not allow Rafa to play this way? Rafa is a rhythm player – once he gets himself moving and feeling the ball, he can be unstoppable. So the plan for Roger is simple, give Rafa no rhytmn!

Serve & Volley

Roger has serve and volleyed a lot more often in recent years, but I feel he will have to ramp this up tomorrow, especially early on. The short points and quick fire decision making that Rafa will have to make could just put his rhythm off at the start of the match and possibly make him feel uncomfortable and out of control. Roger needs to except that he will be passed sometimes and realise that this is collateral damage needed to stop Rafa getting comfortable in the points and in turn, the match.

Return and Charge

We discussed a couple of serve patterns above that Rafa will look to execute each time. Roger needs to take away the second shot option Rafa will have (heavy spin forehands). By coming into the net after the serve, he will give Rafa less space to hit into and again like the serve and volley, give him an ultimatum immediately at the start of the point.

Open Play

If Roger doesn’t come in after the serve or the return, he needs to be ultra aggressive early in the point from his groundstrokes. He cannot allow Rafa to get any rthymn in the rallies and then move him around the court with his forehand. Roger needs to take some risks, shorten the points and be Rafa’s rthymn wrecker! This will include more down the line shots off both wings and even drop shots to displace Rafa from his comfortable baseline area.

The Verdict

After saying all that I’m going to pick Rafa to win this one. I just don’t believe Roger has it in him to play the way I have described. He has won the vast majority of his career matches working the point from the back of the court and dictating from this area. For him to play net rushing tennis would be a huge shift in mentality this late on in his career, even though he has the skills to execute this style. What ever happens if will be a great spectacle and in my opinion the biggest match in tennis history!

Try the leftie Strategy for yourself

If you’re a left-hander, practice Rafa’s patterns above and break down your right-handed opponent. Use your wide serve on the ad side especially on the big points.

If you are a right hander, look to practice more with left handers to learn how to cope with the leftie spin and patterns of play. Mentally prepare yourself to be attacked into your backhand and figure out how to limit the number of situations this happens by coming forward into the net.

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