On Sunday 13th June, Novak Djokovic overcame Stefanos Tsitsipas in five sets to claim the Roland Garros title on Court Philippe-Chatrier. It was just the third time since 2005 that the man lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires aloft was not Spaniard, and king of clay, Rafael Nadal.
This was because two days prior, Djokovic had produced a sensational display to defeat the 13-time champion 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 in a contest that lasted four hours and 22 minutes.
It was a result that surprised many, given Nadal was 105-2 at the clay-court Grand Slam and held a 7-1 head-to-head advantage over the Serbian at the tournament. Alongside this, just eight months earlier, Nadal had demolished Djokovic in the 2020 final – which had been delayed due to the Covid pandemic – 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.
How then, did the World No. 1 manage to turn the tables against Nadal so dramatically? With a little help from the data, we can find out.
The most dramatic change here is in regard to Djokovic’s vast improvement in his winners to unforced errors count in this year’s semi-final compared to last year’s final. The 34-year-old hit 16 more winners in the contest and made 11 fewer errors, despite being on the court for nearly two hours longer.
In 2020, Djokovic looked to bail out of rallies by using the drop shot which either missed its mark, contributing to the high number of unforced errors or enabled Nadal to dictate the point from that moment. This year though, the Serbian opted to stay in the rallies and pin Nadal into the backhand corner.
As a result, Nadal made more errors off his backhand side and Djokovic could dictate play, hitting his forehand away into the open court after forcing Nadal out wide. Therefore, his winner count rose drastically, and Nadal’s errors increased, as he was spending more time further out of the court and on his backhand side compared to last year, when he was advanced inside the court, hitting his forehand from Djokovic’s poorly executed drop shots.
The serving statistics also point to an improvement in Djokovic’s performance, with Nadal declining. As linked to the winner and unforced error count, Djokovic had much more success on Nadal’s first and second serve returns in 2021 as he was more aggressive on return.
He put Nadal under pressure in the majority of his service games as he played with greater intensity, stepping up the court on the second serve to take control of the points immediately. Unlike in 2020, Nadal was never handed ‘easy’ points on serve due to Djokovic’s improved returning which prevented the Spaniard finding any rhythm.
The World No. 1 was also more attack-minded behind his first serve which consequently saw him win 15 percent more of his points on his first serve this year compared to last. Djokovic was broken in five of his first six service games in 2020. This meant he could never build up momentum or confidence on his serve whereas this was not the case this year, as he held twice in the opening set.
Although Djokovic only converted 16 percent more of his break points in 2021 compared to last year’s semi-final, he conjured up 22 opportunities on Nadal’s serve, a rise of 17 from 2020. He also offered up Nadal two fewer chances, despite being on court for one hour and 41 minutes more this year.
This again links to his confidence on serve and more aggressive style on return, as he pinned Nadal back and did not let him run around his forehand and dictate play with his heavy topspin. The creation of 17 more break points also increased the pressure on Nadal on serve, resulting in the Spaniard buckling this year as he was broken 16 percent more.
Although Djokovic’s save percentage was very similar (only a 2 percent increase) on break points, it was clearly the success he was having on Nadal’s serve this year that helped him turn the tables in Paris.
Interestingly, Nadal improved around the net in this year’s semi-final and Djokovic had a slight dip of 2 percent. However, Nadal only came into the next 15 times during the four hours 22 minutes. This was two fewer than in 2020 when they were on the court for two hours and 41 minutes.
This shows that Djokovic was not using the drop shot anywhere near as frequently in the semi-final as Nadal was not finishing the points off up by the net as much. It was a tactic that did not work in 2020 and one Djokovic successfully avoided this year on his way to victory.