What happened when Rafael Nadal hit three – and only three – balls downfield against Casper Ruud?
Calculated carnage on clay.
Nadal beat Ruud 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 in Sunday’s Roland Garros final thanks to dominant points in which he hit exactly three balls down the field on serve and reception. In a one-sided finish that saw the Spaniard win the last 11 of the game, Nadal and Ruud surprisingly played very evenly in the length of the 0-4 rally, with Nadal taking 28 points and Ruud 27.
And then the fifth shot of the rally arrived, and it acted like a proverbial line in the Parisian clay.
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Five-shot rallies (Nadal serving)
The length of the rally in tennis is dictated by the ball landing on the court and not on the ropes, which means that the server can only win odd rallies and the returner can only win even rallies. A five-shot rally is an ideal rally length for Nadal’s chess-like strategy, giving him two more strategic moves after serve to either build a winner or force an error. This is where his dominance in the final blossomed in all its glory.
Points earned in five-hit rallies
Nadal = 11 points gained (3 winners/8 errors extracted from Ruud)
Ruud = 3 points won (1 winner / 2 errors extracted from Nadal)
Ruud won a four-shot rally 9-6, but things changed drastically when another shot was hit on the field. Nadal forged an impressive 11-3 advantage in five-shot rallies. Being able to hit two more shots after serve is a great place for Nadal to initially gain a positional advantage and then extract mistakes from his struggling opponent.
Six-shot rallies (Nadal receives)
The returner is usually on defense to start the point in six-shot rallies, storming off the storm with an aggressive serve, then playing defense with a Return +1 groundstroke. Reaching neutral on the third shot is generally considered a minor victory for the returner. These rules simply did not apply to Nadal in the final.
Points earned in six-shot rallies
Nadal = 13 points (10 winners / 3 errors extracted from Ruud)
Ruud = 3 points (0 winners / 3 errors extracted from Nadal)
Nadal forged an eight-point advantage in the five-shot rallies (11-3) and was even more dominant in the six-shot rallies, creating a 10-point advantage (13-3). Of all the rally lengths contested in the final, Nadal has hit the most winners (10) in six-shot rallies. You can imagine in your mind the Spaniard falling back from a high return from the back of the pitch, then moving quickly to the baseline to attack Ruud’s next backhand shot, then hitting a forehand winner across the pitch from two vacant, out of range of Ruud’s running forehand.
Nadal has forged a dominant 24-6 point advantage when you combine five and six shot rallies. It is important to note that in the five and six shot exchanges, Nadal hits exactly three shots down the field.
What’s fascinating is that the seven and eight shot exchanges had much less of an impact on the result. Ruud won exchanges of seven shots 5-4 and Nadal won eight exchanges 6-3. There were 30 significant runs played in five- and six-shot rallies and only 18 runs played in seven- and eight-shot rallies.
Nadal’s rally advantage
0-4 Shot Rallies = 1 point advantage (28-27)
5-6 Shot Rallies = 18 point advantage (24-6)
7-8 Shot Rallies = 2 point advantage (10-8)
Hitting three balls down the field, whether serving or receiving, was the highlight of Nadal’s lopsided win. He did well to survive the initial 0-4 rally length onslaught, then went straight to work hitting 13 winners and extracting 11 errors from his third shot of the rally.
Three hits in the field is an ideal strategic mix of defending first, maneuvering second, and hammer dropping third hit. The Parisian mid-length master plan was hidden in plain sight.