How I Beat Novak Djokovic: Rafael Nadal Shares His Tactic

Anyone who watched the 2013 US Open final will know how close the match was and how momentum seemed to swing back and forth between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

In this post I’m going to share with you a special insight about how Rafael Nadal managed to beat Novak Djokovic the number 1 tennis player in the world.

This is not just my or some pundits theory, it comes straight from Nadal himself.

Not 30 minutes after I finished commentating on the men’s final for the BBC I walked into the dressing room looking for someone to do a tournament roundup for Open Court, the CNN show I host.

To my surprise Rafael Nadal was in his corner with his team. Rafa was still in his shorts, sitting on the floor with his shirt off. He had an ice pack on his left knee and foot and was enjoying a relaxed chat with his loved ones.

I didn’t want to disturb his quiet celebrations but I couldn’t help but congratulate him and ask a question that was on my mind about the great match he had just played.

As I watched the US Open final unfold from the commenting booth I noticed, like everyone else, the unforced errors coming from Novak Djokovic. Particularly his forehand seemed off. But in the flash of a moment everything started going well for him. Winner after winner he fought his way back and seemed unstoppable. Then suddenly, as quickly as it came, Novak’s form went off again.

Was it bad play from Novak Djokovic or was it good play from Rafael Nadal or perhaps a bit of both?

My impression was that Djokovic was a little ‘flat’ after his long and tough semi final match v Stanislas Wawrinka. A tired player can very rarely maintain long bouts of intense pressure without a lapse and it seemed like Novak’s footwork just fell off when it mattered most – during the many break points that he squandered. Also, we all know how tough Rafael Nadal is and how intense his pressure can be but it seemed to me a bit more than that.

Nadal has a tendency to drop the ball short when he’s not in form or nervous. To make up for this he normally relies on his incredible speed. This is normally fine and works against most players. However, against someone as good as Djokovic with his power and accuracy this becomes a problem.

So what exactly happened? How did Rafa stop Novak’s momentum and manage to come out on top?

Rather than speculate I couldn’t help myself so I asked Rafa “what happened in the second set? You seemed to drop the ball too short but then you seemed to hit harder in the 3rd set, is this what you were trying to do?”

What he said in response startled and even surprised me, but it also showed me the tactical knowledge and respect he has for the game. Unfortunately as this was a private conversation I can’t tell you everything but I can give you a key insight into one of the special tactics Nadal used to come out on top.

Here is what Rafael Nadal said in response to my question:

“I was too far at the back and his power when he has angles frightens me. He played very good I cannot beat him like this so I came up closer”

Rafa frightened? Really?

Essentially, what Rafa is saying is that he was playing too far back from the baseline which is one of the reasons why his shots were dropping short. This also gave Novak more angles to work with and allowing him to use his power to outmaneuver Nadal.

It became clear to me that when Rafa became “frightened” he started to attack. How did he do that? He got closer to the baseline in order to get the ball back quickly, cutting off angles and improving the depth of his shots. In effect he attacked back and puts the pressure on Novak to make the winning shot!

This made me think about my own game and my career. When I was nervous I tended to attack as well. For me it was attack the net at all costs try to frighten the opponent switching the pressure off in my head and on to theirs.

I’m sure McEnroe, Edberg and Rafter all did the same thing but this was Rafa’s way of attacking when frightened!

So there you have it, Rafael Nadal strategically attacked when he was under pressure in order to disrupt Novak Djokovic’s momentum.

Both clever, brave and effective. Coming from Rafael Nadal I suppose that’s not really a surprise though is it?

Thanks for the great insight Rafa!

He was even kind enough to sign a ball for me… hey I’m a fan as well!

If you didn’t get to watch the US Open final I’ve included a YouTube video below with highlights. Oh and I also have a YouTube channel …hint hint… check it out here and subscribe if you’re interested:)

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