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Rafael Nadal and the Art Of Winning with Fewer Points

Rafael Nadal US Open

In tennis, there are some times where the player that wins the match didn’t win more points than their opponent. This situation of winning with fewer points rarely occurs but when it happens, the player who won the match is usually the one who managed better the difficult situations.

Playing with the score and dealing with those tense moments is an art that Rafael Nadal does better than other players. As we all know, tennis is a mental sport, and the scoring system constantly tests players’ nerves.

Tennis Scoring System Encourages Pressure Situations

Players must face many difficult situations–for example tiebreaks, break points, set points, or match points. In other sports, like soccer, there is a time limit and the team that earns more points is the one who wins the match.

That makes things easier, since the only tense moment occurs when the score is tight and the end of the time is getting closer.

What we want to explain is that the tennis scoring system encourages those tense moments and playing better under pressure makes the difference when the match is tight.

The Best Players Under Pressure

Probably, the best way to identify if a player can manage difficult situations is taking a look at the Under-Pressure Rate designed by the ATP analysts. This is based on percentage break points converted, break points saved, tiebreaks won, and deciding sets won. And the three players leading the list are Novak Djokovic, Nadal, and Roger Federer. In that order.

It is an interesting rate, but what happens if we only take into account the matches between “Big Three” members? Well, we don’t have the Under-Pressure Rate taking into account only the matches between them, but there is another way to see which player manages better difficult situations.

We can identify those matches where a player won despite winning fewer points. In this sense, if we review all the matches between the Big Three we can identify seven matches where the winner was not the player who won more points.

The Art of Winning With Fewer Points

Winning With Fewer Points: Federer vs Nadal

There are 3 matches in the “Fedal” rivalry where the player that won more points lost the match:

  1. 2006 Dubai Final: Nadal defeats Federer 2-6 6-4 6-4, winning 47.7% of the points while Federer won 52.3%.
  2. 2006 Rome Final: Nadal defeats Federer 6-7 7-6 6-4 2-6 7-6 ,winning 49.3% of the points while Federer won 50.7%.
  3. 2009 Australian Open Final: Nadal defeats Federer 7-6 3-6 7-6 3-6 6-2, winning 49.9% of the points while Federer won 50.1%.

If we take into account the total points won, we see that Roger Federer wasn’t able to deal with those difficult situations that decided tight matches. On the other side, Nadal was a better player when he needed to be and that made the difference.

Winning With Fewer Points: Djokovic vs Federer

There are two matches in this rivalry where the winner of the match won fewer points than the loser:

  1. 2007 Montreal Final: Djokovic defeats Federer 7-6 2-6 7-6, winning 49.5% of the points while Federer won 50.5%.
  2. 2019 Wimbledon Final: Djokovic defeats Federer 7-6 1-6 7-6 4-6 13-12, winning 48.3% of the points while Federer won 51.7%.

As in the “Fedal” rivalry, there is no match where Federer won against Djokovic with fewer points. Thus, it seems that Federer is the weakest member of the Big Three when it comes to the decisive moments of the match. It is not insignificant that he lost five matches against Nadal and Djokovic winning more points than them. Because winning with fewer points is an art based on playing with the score.

Winning With Fewer Points: Nadal vs Djokovic

Finally, when we take a look at the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, there are two matches where one of them won with fewer points:

  1. 2008 Beijing Olympics Semifinal: Nadal defeats Djokovic 6-4 1-6 6-4, winning 48.8% of the points while Djokovic won 51.2%.
  2. 2009 Madrid Semifinal: Nadal defeats Djokovic 3-6 7-6 7-6 winning 49% of the points while Djokovic won 51%.

As against Federer, Nadal also won Djokovic more than one match despite winning fewer points. That makes him the master of playing with the score in tennis since he is the most efficient player when it comes to winning important points.

However, it’s also true that all those matches were played in the 2000s, which means that Rafael Nadal was superior especially in their early years. Since 2011, Novak Djokovic made a change in his mentality and learned how to play those decisive points better. That 2019 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer is a clear example of his improvement.

What Would Happen With a Different Scoring System?

Therefore, as we have seen, the current tennis scoring system allows you to win a match with fewer points. But what would happen if instead of playing with games and sets tennis was played with total points and a time limit? Something would change?

Well, there are reasons to think that some matches would have a different result but also others to believe the opposite.

On one hand, with a different scoring system maybe Federer would have played less nervous because of the absence of critical points as break points, set points, or match points. As we explained before, in a match based on total points the are not many under-pressure situations and it’s easier for the player to strictly focus on this game.

On the other hand, we cannot take for granted that Nadal would have played all the points in the same way he did in those matches. If all the points had the same importance, he would probably fight each point as it was the last one.

Yes, the Spaniard is well known for his attitude when it comes to playing a tennis match but even Nadal allows himself not to fight for some points with the aim of economizing power. Thus, if the victory depended on winning more points, he would probably try to win some of those points that he lost in not so relevant games.

In conclusion, we cannot take for granted that Federer and Djokovic would have won those matches with a different score system. But what is sure is that the current tennis score allows us to watch more exciting matches with many interesting situations.

Main Photo from Getty.


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