Point-by-Point Profile: Rafael Nadal

Moving on with our point-by-point player profiles, let’s look at Rafael Nadal. Perhaps more than anyone else on tour, he is one of a kind, exhibiting many tendencies that reflect his left-handedness, but not consistently so.

Using all of his grand slam matches from 2011, we can begin to quantify those tendencies.

The first table shows the frequency of different outcomes in the deuce court, in the ad court, and on break point, relative to Nadal’s average. For instance, the 0.990 in the upper left corner means that Djokovic wins 1.0% fewer points than average in the deuce court.

OUTCOME       Deuce     Ad  Break  
Point%        0.990  1.011  0.849  
                                   
Aces          0.875  1.139  0.884  
Svc Wnr       0.998  1.002  0.792  
Dbl Faults    1.076  0.916  1.421  
1st Sv In     0.980  1.022  1.011  
                                   
Server Wnr    0.942  1.064  1.057  
Server UE     1.028  0.969  1.119  
                                   
Return Wnr    0.771  1.254  1.038  
Returner Wnr  0.986  1.015  1.571  
Returner UE   1.006  0.993  0.950  
                                   
Rally Len     1.017  0.981  1.172  

There are plenty of differences between his deuce and ad-court performance, but they aren’t consistent. He hits far more aces in the ad court, but also allows way more return winners. The safest conclusion seems to be that his ad-court serving generates a different, more explosive kind of tennis. In the deuce court, he hits fewer aces, more second serves, fewer winners..but allows his opponent fewer winners. It’s almost as if he plays clay-court tennis in the deuce court and hard-court tennis in the ad court.

The break point tendencies are even more marked. These points generally go longer (17% longer rallies), which would seem to work in Nadal’s favor, but he doesn’t win points at anywhere near his average rate. To some extent, this is because his break points come against better players, but his break point numbers are generally much worse than Djokovic’s.

Next, this is how he performs on a point-by-point basis. Win% shows what percentage of points he wins at that score; Exp is how many he would be expected to win (given how he performs in each match), and Rate is the difference between the two. A rate above 1 means he plays better on those points; below 1 is worse.

SCORE   Pts   Win%    Exp  Rate  
g0-0    377  67.9%  67.2%  1.01  
g0-15   118  65.3%  64.8%  1.01  
g0-30    41  58.5%  61.8%  0.95  
g0-40    17  70.6%  61.0%  1.16  
                                 
g15-0   252  68.7%  68.3%  1.01  
g15-15  156  63.5%  66.5%  0.95  
g15-30   81  60.5%  64.0%  0.94  
g15-40   44  54.5%  62.0%  0.88  
                                 
g30-0   173  69.4%  69.1%  1.00  
g30-15  152  67.8%  67.5%  1.00  
g30-30   98  66.3%  65.4%  1.01  
g30-40   57  57.9%  63.4%  0.91  
                                 
g40-0   120  71.7%  69.8%  1.03  
g40-15  137  67.2%  68.1%  0.99  
g40-30  110  74.5%  67.0%  1.11  
g40-40  143  59.4%  60.9%  0.98  
                                 
g40-AD   58  72.4%  57.9%  1.25  
gAD-40   85  52.9%  62.9%  0.84  

From the past season, the lingering image I have of Rafa is of him fighting off a slew of break points. That is in evidence at 40-AD, where he wins a staggering 72.4% of points. That’s just remarkable: his 40-AD points come against his best opponents, and he performs considerably better at that score than he does at the logically equivalent 30-40.

But 40-AD is the exception. At almost every other crucial score, when Nadal is playing from behind, he plays worse than expected. 15-40 is the most marked, where he wins only 54.5% of points compared to the 62.0% of points he “should” win. Also worrisome is his performance at AD-40; it seems that Nadal is the best in the game when it comes to getting the score back to deuce.

Serving Against Nadal

We can go through the same exercises for Nadal’s return points. The next two tables are trickier to read. Look at them as Serving against Nadal. Thus, the number in the upper-left corner means that when serving against Nadal, players win 1.3% more points than average in the deuce court; Nadal is a better returner in the ad court.

(I’ve excluded return points against lefty servers. Since lefties and righties have such different serving tendencies, limiting the sample to righty servers gives us clearer results, even as the sample shrinks a bit.)

OUTCOME       Deuce     Ad  Break  
Point%        1.013  0.986  1.009  
                                   
Aces          1.150  0.837  0.994  
Svc Wnr       1.098  0.894  0.909  
Dbl Faults    0.860  1.152  0.998  
1st Sv In     1.008  0.991  1.004  
                                   
Server Wnr    1.040  0.956  0.946  
Server UE     0.994  1.006  0.935  
                                   
Return Wnr    0.791  1.227  0.874  
Returner Wnr  0.925  1.082  1.254  
Returner UE   0.918  1.090  1.073  
                                   
Rally Len     1.006  0.993  1.031  

As we might expect, Nadal is a monster returner in the ad court–and servers know it. Righties serve better in the deuce court, but not this much better; Nadal wins 16% more points than average when returning in the deuce court. His opponents help him out, double-faulting at a much higher rate when serving to Rafa’s forehand.

On break point, Nadal isn’t quite so dominant in shutting down the service game, but he does generate a lot more winners later in the point.

Here’s more on Nadal’s return game, again with numbers from the perspective of players serving against him.

SCORE   Pts   Win%    Exp  Rate  
g0-0    380  57.4%  57.2%  1.00  
g0-15   158  50.0%  55.5%  0.90  
g0-30    79  50.6%  54.6%  0.93  
g0-40    39  61.5%  53.6%  1.15  
                                 
g15-0   216  57.9%  58.5%  0.99  
g15-15  170  52.9%  56.6%  0.93  
g15-30  120  54.2%  55.5%  0.98  
g15-40   79  62.0%  52.9%  1.17  
                                 
g30-0   125  61.6%  59.7%  1.03  
g30-15  138  58.0%  57.8%  1.00  
g30-30  123  57.7%  57.5%  1.00  
g30-40  101  50.5%  56.6%  0.89  
                                 
g40-0    77  63.6%  60.7%  1.05  
g40-15  108  60.2%  59.2%  1.02  
g40-30  114  69.3%  57.4%  1.21  
g40-40  160  57.5%  55.9%  1.03  
                                 
g40-AD   68  47.1%  55.7%  0.85  
gAD-40   92  54.3%  56.0%  0.97  

Once again, Nadal loves 40-AD. This time, it’s his chance to convert a break point, and he does so at an alarming rate. And in the return game, he performs nearly as well at 30-40. At 40-AD, he wins more than half of points, a far better performance that we would expect, given the quality of his opponents and his performance on other points against the same players.

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