3 Suggestions for Jannik Sinner Against Rafael Nadal

After losing to Rafael Nadal in the 2nd round of the ATP Rome Masters 1000, Jannik Sinner is now 0-2 in his young career against the Spaniard. Having a losing record against the greatest clay court player in the history of our sport is nothing to be ashamed of; Sinner’s other loss to Nadal came on clay as well, in the quarterfinals of the 2020 French Open. Looking at the statistics from their Rome encounter, I think that there are three areas that Sinner could improve on to give himself a better chance when he sees Nadal for the third time.

One particular area, where Nadal was better than Sinner in Rome, was on points that started with a second serve. I included both columns for visual effect, even though a player’s 2nd serve win% is equal to (1 – 2nd serve return win%) of their opponent.

2nd serve win %2nd serve return win %
Rafael Nadal55%56%
Jannik Sinner44%45%
Courtesy ATPTour.com

Sinner’s Second Serve Placement

These are the locations where Sinner aimed his second serves against Nadal in Rome:

When Nadal is getting ready to return Sinner’s second serve, he can basically eliminate half of the service box in the deuce, and a third of the service box in the ad. In this particular match, it was a winning strategy for Sinner in the ad court, where he won two thirds of the points that started with his second serve down the “T”, but it was a losing proposition in the deuce side, where he lost two thirds of his second serve points that started out wide.

Where it gets really interesting is that Sinner’s plan here is to serve to Nadal’s backhand in both courts. Let’s take a look whether Nadal actually returned with the backhand once Sinner got his second serve in. First, the deuce court:

How many forehand returns did Nadal hit on Sinner’s second serve in the deuce? Zero. That’s the image on the left. All of Nadal’s second serve returns in the deuce were backhands, just like Sinner planned. Yet Nadal won 11 and lost 5 of those points. Not encouraging for Sinner. How about the ad side?

How many forehand returns did Nadal hit on Sinner’s second serve in the ad? All of them. That’s the image on the left again. All of Nadal’s second serve returns in the ad were forehands, yet he won 6 and lost 10 of those points. Much more encouraging for Sinner.

Let’s sum it up. Sinner was clearly targeting the Nadal backhand with his second serve in both sides of the court. He got as he wished in the deuce, and lost the majority of those points. He couldn’t find the Nadal backhand with the second serve in the ad, and won the majority of those points.

My biggest takeaway from this analysis would be for Sinner to hit more second serves out wide in the ad, but especially down the T in the deuce side next time he sees Nadal. It would prevent Nadal from zeroing in on one particular area of the service box, and Sinner has shown the ability to handle the Nadal forehand return by having a winning percentage against it in the ad side.

Sinner’s Second Serve Return

Sinner’s second serve returns often landed much too short in order to put Nadal on defense at the start of the point. Here is the breakdown of Sinner’s second serve return locations from the deuce side:

The forehand returns are the box on the left, backhand returns are on the right. Sinner did a good job with getting forehands on the majority of the deuce side returns: 9 forehands, and only 4 backhands. But notice that out of the 13 total second serve returns, only 3 were classified by the ATP as “deep.” Especially with the forehand returns, there is a cluster right in the middle of the court. Let’s take a look at the ad side:

The forehand returns are once again on the left, the backhands on the right. It’s a similar pattern to the deuce side: Sinner again does a good job of getting forehands on the second serve returns: 10 forehands and just 2 backhands. Yet out of those 12 returns, only 3 would be classified as “deep.” And once again, there are a bunch of forehand returns in the middle of the court.

Finally, this is where Sinner was hitting his second serve returns from:

Courtesy ATPTour.com

Let’s sum up this part of the analysis. Sinner was hitting his second serve returns mostly from about 4 meters behind the baseline, with one lone exception when he stepped inside the court in the ad side. Those returns were mostly forehands that were landing short, towards the middle of the court.

I think that Sinner has two options to make his second serve return more effective against Nadal. First, he can step inside the court more, and keep everything else more or less the same – just like that one dot in the picture above. Sure, it would be great to get the return deeper, but by taking time away from Nadal, even a shorter return can elicit a defensive response.

The second option – if Sinner feels comfortable hitting forehand returns from further behind the baseline – would be to simply return higher above the net. Here are the return heights from Nadal and Sinner from their Rome match:

Courtesy ATPTour.com

Sinner hit his second serve returns about 0.73 meters above the net. I’d like to see that number be closer to about 1 meter, if Sinner were to keep returning from way back behind the baseline. Just those additional 30 centimeters of net clearance would get the returns a bit deeper, and set up Sinner on offense at the start of the rally.

Rally Backhand Direction

Nadal crafted his biggest advantage in the match in the longest rallies. Here are the points won by both players in rallies of different lengths:

0-4 shots5-8 shots9+ shots
Rafael Nadal272322
Jannik Sinner232316
AdvantageNadal +4Nadal +6
Courtesy ATPTour.com

One way to keep the rallies shorter for Sinner – besides mixing up his second serve locations, and hitting his second serve returns deeper – would be to utilize his backhand down the line more. This is where Sinner aimed his backhand groundstrokes against Nadal:

Courtesy ATPTour.com

That’s about three out of every four backhands going into Nadal’s forehand. It’s actually pretty common to see this kind of a distribution when two right handed players are matched up against each other, and they’re trading backhands back and forth. Against a lefty though, it’s a different story.

Let’s contrast Sinner’s backhand placement to where Alexander Zverev aimed his backhands against Nadal when he beat him in the recent ATP Madrid Masters 1000:

Courtesy ATPTour.com

Zverev was much closer to a 50-50 split on his backhand than Sinner was, and having to respect Zverev’s backhand down the line undoubtedly kept Nadal more off balance in groundstroke exchanges. Sinner has a very simple, clean, two handed backhand, that he can hit close to 130km/h. The next time he plays against Nadal and finds himself in a groundstroke rally, I’d like to see him take more chances with his backhand down the line to the Nadal backhand. The majority of his backhands can still go crosscourt, but just like on the second serve, all he’s trying to do is show Nadal a different pattern of play, as opposed to being a little too predictable.

Sinner is one of the upcoming stars of tennis, challenging the “old guard” of Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal. Making a few small adjustments here and there is all that it might take for Sinner to claim his first win over Nadal the next time they lock horns.

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