Rome Final: Rafa v Nole – 10 Things To Look For

G’day from Roma!

It’s been an amazing week in Rome working with the coaching teams of Jan-Lennard Struff, Matteo Berrettini, and Lorenzo Sonego as well as the Italian Tennis Federation. Having limited crowds back at matches is amazing. The electricity in the stadiums has been sorely missed by players. They really do feed off the energy of the crowd so much.

Today’s final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will no doubt be a cracker. Both players had at least one tough match during the tournament that could have easily seen them defeated. Nadal saved two match points to Denis Shapovalov 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(3). Djokovic scraped by Stefanos Tsitsipas 4-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Djokovic leads the head-to-head against Nadal 29-27, so there is some extra motivation to grab this win today to either close the gap or extend it. After sitting courtside for almost all their matches in Rome this week, I have put together a list of 10 things I will be closely monitoring as the final unfolds.

1: Thrive On Adversity

Consider this quote from Djokovic…

“[I had to dig] very deep. Without a doubt, until the last shot I didn’t know whether I was going to win but I believed that I could,” Djokovic said.

And Nadal, who saved two match points against Denis Shapovalov.

“[It] is an important victory for me [to] be able to win matches like today, three hours and 27 [minutes], in the Barcelona final three hours and 38 [minutes], long matches,” said Nadal. “To be able to win these kinds of matches against young players gives me confidence with my body. It’s true that I have to do things better for tomorrow. But the main thing today for me is [to] recover physically.”

Both guys have had their feet to the fire this week in Rome. That will provide valuable experience for today’s match. If either of them shows any sign of weakness with their body language then the other player will surely draw motivation from it. Novak got too angry in Belgrade. Rafa got too disappointed in Monte Carlo.

Whoever stays the most positive when adversity surely arrives will be the winner.

2: Novak 1st Serve Patterns

Novak’s primary (7 out of 10) serve locations against Rafa should be wide on both sides to exploit Rafa’s ultra-deep return location. If the return is short then Novak can step forward and attack the open court on the other side. He can also let Rafa run hard to open the court and play behind him. Getting a few easy points like this will go a long way to taking the pressure off his service games.

3: Novak’s Backhand Return

This shot is really, really dialed in at the moment. I was in the coach’s box as part of Lorenzo Sonego’s team and could not believe how well Novak hit his backhand return deep in the court. It felt like it was always landing within two racket lengths of the baseline from a  200 km/h+ 1st serve from Lorenzo. Rafa needs to serve more to Novak’s forehand return today. In 2011/2012 Novak won seven straight matches against Rafa – all finals. Rafa finally defeated Novak 6-3, 6-1 in the Monte Carlo final. He didn’t direct one first serve to Novak’s backhand return in that match.

4: Novak’s Drop Shots

This shot can be a bit of a mixed bag for Novak. Sometimes he uses it at the right time, which is typically earlier in the rally, and other times he bails out of a rally and it barely makes it halfway up the net. The absolute best time to hit a drop shot vs. Rafa is with the very first shot after the serve (Serve +1). The reason is that Rafa is at his deepest behind the baseline and you can sneak it in early with him a country mile away.

5: Rafa Break Points

This absolutely drives me crazy when I watch Rafa in big moments. When he is serving to save break point, he is always bold and plays at such a high level. I have often said that the toughest point to win in tennis is break point vs. Rafa. It feels the exact opposite when Rafa is trying to convert break points. I get the feeling he is far more timid, far more defensive than normal and his return lacks power and depth. When he gets an opponent to 15-40, I feel a passive point is coming and the score will quickly be 30-40. He simply can’t hope the opponent will gift him the break point – especially against Novak.

6: Rafa’s Run-Around Forehand

This has the potential to be the most lethal shot on the court. Novak will no doubt go at Rafa’s backhand to grind it down. If Rafa can find a healthy amount of run-around forehands standing in the Deuce court, he can then attack Novak’s forehand out wide in the Deuce court. This is Rafa’s favorite way to end the point from the baseline. An inside-out forehand to his opponent’s forehand. Novak needs to make Rafa hit backhands standing in the Deuce court.

7: Serve & Volley

It’s such a smart play on clay because the returner is typically so far back. Novak likes to do it in clutch situations to bring the battle to the front of the court. We may not see any today, but I have spent a week in Rome watching many, many matches and have seen serve and volley work incredibly well. The more uncertainty you can create in your opponent’s mind the better.

8: Novak’s Forehand

I have been very impressed with how well he is hitting it this week. He gets a lot more spin and shape on the ball on clay than he does on hard. He is hitting his forehand cross court roll exceptionally well and will need that shot to pull Rafa off the court to hit a backhand. Early in the point is all about pushing the opponent back with depth. Later in the point is the time to exploit that deep court position with heavy short angles. Novak has that shot in spades this week.

9: Rafa’s Ad Court Forehand

Rafa lost 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 to Andrey Rublev in Monte Carlo. He lost to Alexander Zverev 6-4, 6-4 in Madrid. He had to save match points here in Rome against Denis Shapovalov. Rafa’s regular, run-of-the-mill cross court forehand is misbehaving and the main reason these clay court losses are happening. At the start of the week here in Rome Rafa spent many hours hitting rally forehands to try and find his range. It was off. It was too flat. The shot lacked shape and was spraying on him. It’s improved as the week progressed, but if Rafa loses confidence in hitting routine forehands cross court this afternoon vs. Novak, then his goose is cooked.

10: Attacking Rafa’s Forehand

Novak has got to make sure that all the attacking he tries to do in the point is not happening too much to Rafa’s rock-solid backhand wing. Rafa does not miss a lot of backhands, so consistently hammering away here is not the answer. One or two balls to Rafa’s backhand, and then attacking wide in the Ad court to the forehand is the smart play. That is what worked so well in the 2019 Australian Open final where Novak won 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 – and it wasn’t that close.

I am greatly looking forward to the final and will be writing an ATP analysis of it this evening.

Have a great final gentlemen!

Craig O’Shannessy, Brain Game Tennis & Contributing Editor

For more from Craig, visit BRAIN GAME TENNIS

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