Novak Djokovic stunned Rafael Nadal at the 2019 Australian Open in straight sets (6-3, 6-2, 6-3). Djokovic won with an impressive attacking game from the baseline. Nadal may need to adjust his strategy if he encounters his rival in the finals or semi-finals this year. Here’s how Nadal could beat Djokovic at the 2021 Australian Open for a record 21 grand slams in the men’s game.
Djokovic has improved his serve since 2019. A good return strategy is even more crucial. Nadal should stand up on the baseline, or a foot behind it. This would help Nadal intercept aces from Djokovic when he serves down the “T”. Standing closer to the baseline would also enable Nadal to play more aggressive shots off the return of serve. It would mean returning with a flatter ball, deep and penetrating into Djokovic’s side of the court, putting him on the defensive. In 2019, Nadal stood far back for the return. This meant playing a high topspin shot which got him in the rally, but was too easily attacked by Djokovic to gain dominance. It also meant that Djokovic hit a clean winner on his first groundstroke into the space Nadal had left open. Stepping forward to the baseline would deny Djokovic this advantage.
Serving against the best returner in the history of tennis is not easy. Nadal is better off hitting slice serves out-wide that veer away from Djokovic and are harder to return. Nadal may also consider playing more body serves to deny Djokovic space to gain a decent purchase on the ball.
In the 2019 final there were moments where Nadal used the “serve plus one” tactic effectively. The serve is aimed usually out-wide but sometimes down the “T”. The server’s first and “one” groundstroke is hit into the open space for a quick winner. This would avoid Djokovic getting his teeth into the rally and help break his rhythm.
In the 2019 US Open final victory against Daniil Medvedev, Nadal increased the times he serve and volleyed. This was an effective way to win easy points against a player who also has an aggressive baseline game like Djokovic.
Nadal may consider flattening out his groundstrokes because the topspin shot gives Djokovic time to change the angle and increase the pace of the ball, giving him rally dominance. A flatter shot from Nadal would also give Djokovic less time to react.
Throughout the 2020 season, Djokovic has used the backhand as his main weapon of attack. In an unexpected move he suddenly hits a backhand winner down the line which is difficult to predict. Djokovic has also been using the backhand slice for effective dop-shots that catch opponents off-guard. This puts the player rushing to the net in a defensive scenario.
Nadal must try to avoid hitting to the Djokovic backhand continuously in a long cross-court exchange for this reason. The more Djokovic is able to stay on the advantage side of the court and keep hitting his backhand in a rally, the more confident he can be on that side as the match develops. A better tactic would be to move Djokovic corner to corner, making aggressive shots coming towards Nadal harder to execute. It would then give Nadal the chance to come forward and attack Djokovic’s shorter defensive balls. Nadal had great success at the 2019 Australian Open final in volleying. Playing an approach shot to Djokovic’s forehand out-wide, then coming forward to volley the ball away would be a great tactic to take time away from Djokovic and break any momentum from the baseline.
Clay court to fast court strategy
In essence, one strategy for Nadal is to abandon clay court tactics he brings to the hard court. It is recommended that Nadal plays a Federer-like strategy instead, the type used on grass or fast hard courts. Nadal has the technical range to make this adjustment. For sure, he is the greatest clay court player of all time. But he is also one of the greatest on every surface, winning Wimbledon twice, the US Open four times and the Australian Open once.
The 2019 US Open final shows that Nadal is very able at net. Nadal needs to play aggressively, finish the point early and take away time from his opponent. Because if not, in a longer rally situation Djokovic has the weapons to overcome his opponent in Australia. Nadal must do everything he can to prevent Djokovic from getting a handle on the rally, and finish it before he does.