Rafael Nadal has unearthed a valuable cache of points hidden in the red dust of Roland Garros. The 13-time French Open champion dominates a specialized statistical category that may unlock a formula for how he wins on clay: the third shot of a rally.
When Nadal strikes the third shot in a back-and-forth with an opponent, he consistently squirrels away the point. He serves, the ball comes back, he hits it again, and the point ends right there on a winner or an error. When his opponents hit the third shot, he often neutralizes, making sure they don’t collect. And this shot of Nadal’s is particularly dominant against one major opponent: world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
The difference between Nadal’s third shot and that of his French Open opponents unveils a surprising peek into Nadal’s ways and means for success. At the 2020 French Open, when Nadal hit the third shot of a rally, he either hit a winner or elicited an error from his opponent 110 times, according to stats from Roland Garros data provider Infosys. Nadal’s opponents, meanwhile, won points on their third shot just 58 times, roughly half of Nadal’s number.
In tennis, when a match win can hinge on just a few well-timed points, a difference as large as 52 points hangs heavily over the stat sheet.
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So what’s happening on the third shot of a rally, and why can’t Nadal’s opponents control it like he does?
Let’s start with a simple primer on the rally in tennis. The first shot is always the serve. The second shot is always the return. As such, the server takes the odd-numbered shots in a rally. If a point is won on an odd-numbered shot (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, etc.), it’s the server who has won the point. Likewise, the returner always wins points on the even-numbered shots (2, 4, 6, 8, 10).
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Nadal’s domination of the third shot takes on two forms. First, when serving, he’s winning the point on his first shot after the serve, a term that in recent years has come to be called “serve plus one.”
It’s no secret that when Nadal serves, he immediately looks to follow with his left-handed forehand to inflict damage. Fans have seen him brutalize opponents with this play over and over. His opponents are often powerless to stop it on clay, even though they know it’s coming.
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Nadal is the King of Clay, so his dominance in any specific area isn’t exactly a revelation. But it’s mildly surprising that his serve is so effective with these short points given that the surface is supposed to slow things down, take the edge off the serve and produce longer rallies.
But the bigger surprise is the differential that proves crushing at Roland Garros. Nadal’s opponents can’t seem to do the same thing to him with their serve plus one.
Nadal often defends the servers’ “plus one” shot brilliantly, by neutralizing and extending rallies beyond three shots. He uses his quickness to get to the ball and groundstrokes that produce topspin-induced margin over the net. In last year’s Roland Garros semifinal match against Diego Schwartzman, the Argentine won a paltry 6 points on his third rally shot, while Nadal doubled that number.
Nadal famously positions himself far behind the baseline to return. So it’s possible that whatever Nadal is doing with his return — be it depth, direction, spin or pace — gives his opponents very little material to create an aggressive third shot.
Djokovic, in particular, has a problem with this shot. Last year at Roland Garros against Nadal, nobody struggled more with the large statistical gap in third shot prowess than Djokovic, who could face Nadal in the semifinals this year.
Last fall’s French Open final was memorable mainly for its one-sided result, a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 drubbing by Nadal over Djokovic. In that match, Nadal won 107 points — 25 of them on that third rally shot. Nadal produced eight winners and drew 17 errors from Djokovic on the serve plus one.
When Djokovic was serving, he hit six winners and drew only a single error from Nadal using his serve plus one. The differential between the two men was 18 points, with the bulk in the error category. In a clash between two of the greatest to ever play the sport, that gap was larger in Nadal’s favor than with any other player he faced. His third shot is a linchpin of Nadal’s game on clay for first-serve points, as well as second-serve points. For Djokovic, only 9 percent of his winning points came on the third shot of rallies in that match.
It’s not necessarily a difference in tactical style that trips up Djokovic against Nadal; the 18-time Grand Slam champion does well with his serve plus one on other surfaces. Djokovic won the third rally ball differential 10-5 against Daniil Medvedev on the way to this year’s Australian Open title.
Nadal and Djokovic met on clay in Rome last month at the Italian Open, where Nadal won in three sets to capture the title. The ATP does not currently report rally data for its matches, but an unofficial video review of three-shot rallies reveals an impressive stat. Djokovic dominated the second set of that match, winning 6-1. In that set, Nadal did not win a single point on the third shot of a rally.
So if anyone wants to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, Djokovic included, they might look to shut down his third shot in a rally. And when it’s their turn to hit it, they might want to strike a blow of their own.