The Biggest Factor in Rafael Nadal's 2015 Struggles

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistOctober 7, 2015

Rafael Nadal of Spain holds the balls as he prepares to serve against Wu Di of China during their first round men's singles match of the China Open tennis tournament at the National Tennis Stadium in Beijing, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Andy Wong/Associated Press

Superstar Rafael Nadal’s opening-match win over Di Wu in Beijing was indicative of the struggles the former No. 1 has had on the 2015 ATP World Tour. Although he won 6-4, 6-4, the Spaniard had to persevere through what is rapidly becoming his Achilles' heel.

Is it his serve that is most holding him back? Has his return game been the primary culprit? Do we just chalk this up holistically as a package of age and diminishing footwork?

What is this most troublesome factor in Nadal’s game, and how has it prevented him from dominating his opponents the way he had in the previous decade?

Andy Wong/Associated Press

 

By the Numbers

Nadal is sporting a very respectable 46-15 match record for the year, but he has slipped in big matches and has not appeared in a majors semifinal.

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We are going to send you to the Rafael Nadal “player stats page” that ATP World Tour has organized for tennis fans who follow the tour. Users may examine his important career statistics and select individual seasons for comparison.

What part of Nadal’s serving or returns was hurting him most? We charted his career results and selected three past outstanding seasons to compare with 2015. All numbers below are percentages, unless noted:

 

Service Record                         2008     2010     2013     2015     career

1st serve points won                 72         75        73         72         72

2nd serve points won                60         60        57         55         57

break points saved                   67         69        69         62         66

service games won                   88         90        88         83         85

service points won                    68         70        68         66         67

 

It’s noteworthy that Nadal’s first serve is equal to 2008 and his career average. This does not appear to be the difference in dropping to No. 7 in the world. His second-serve percentage dips a full 2 percent below his career average, but even this is not enough to fully explain his relative struggles in 2015.

How about break points saved? Now we are getting closer. Nadal is saving only 62 percent, which is a more significant 4 percent drop from his career average and much lower than 2010 and 2013.

But that’s only part of the story.

 

Return Record                         2008     2010     2013     2015     career

1st serve return points won      34         31        35         34         34

2nd serve return points won     55         55        54         54         55

break points converted            45         44        47         43         45

return games won                   33         29        34         33         33

return points won                    43         40        42         42         42

total points won                       55         55        55         54         54

 

OK, the problem is definitely not service returns. Both categories mirror his career average and 2008. It’s actually a better combination than 2010, his fabled three-Slam year.

But once again, there is a noteworthy glitch that indicates his problem: He is only 43 percent with break points converted, which is significant given that his return points and total points won are also in line with his career averages.

So, we have established that Nadal’s two most important struggles are saving break points and converting break points, the former behind his offensive game and the latter from his defensive game. Is failing to deliver at the most crucial points an indication that he is not delivering under pressure?

That leads us to the most important point of all.

Andy Wong/Associated Press

 

Break-Point Volume

I’m going to call this next stat “break-point volume.” This is found by calculating how often Nadal is facing (or trying to save) break points with his serve. Divide break points faced by service games played to find out how often Nadal is trying to prevent a break. The lower the percentage, the less often he is being put under pressure by his opponents.

We will also calculate how often Nadal has created break points with his return. Again, divide break-point opportunities by return games played. The higher this percentage, the more break-point chances Nadal is creating.

Is his volume of break points lower, equal or higher than the aforementioned years?

(Raw numbers are used in the four columns denoted with the *)

Service Record                      2008     2010     2013     2015     career

service games played *         1,054     1,001      913      712       10,456

break points faced *              395       322       356      317       4,476

break points trouble               37        32         39        45         43

 

Return Record                       2008     2010     2013     2015     career

return games played *           1,045      1,002     916      712      10,446

break-points opportunities *    786        674      662      544      7,649

break points created              75         67         72        76        73

 

What stands out most is that Nadal is giving up break points against his serve far more often than in his best years. In 2010, he gave up slightly less than one break point every three games. In 2015, he is at 45 percent, or closing in on giving up one break point every two games.

Nadal’s return break-point volume in 2015 turns out surprisingly different. He is creating break points more often than in any of his three best years. He is creating about three break-point chances every four games, which is better than 2010, when he created two break-point chances for every three games.

Andy Wong/Associated Press

 

Pressure Points

There are several other conditions that explain much of how and why Nadal is different in 2015. For instance, 2010 was a different kind of ATP Tour when players held serve easier and had a harder time obtaining breaks. Nadal’s statistics above back this up.

Furthermore, we could surmise that Nadal has been forced to create more break points in 2015 because he has to come back more often if he is giving up more looks to his opponents. Are court conditions speeding up, or is Nadal slowing down? There are more variables yet to study.

Above all, it’s clear that Nadal’s battle in facing more break points is causing him to deal with more pressure. These break points are pressure points that can best explain who wins matches, especially big matches. There’s no question that Nadal was more in control and more dominant in 2010.

Perhaps dealing with more break points in 2015, with both serves and returns, is part of what has made his confidence more tenuous. Even his match against Wu saw him face seven break points in only 10 service games, and that (70 percent) against a weak opponent. He only saved three of those seven points. It’s a good thing for Nadal that he won six of eight break points that he created.

Keep your eye on how often Nadal is put under pressure with his serve. If he is to win another major, he will either have to give fewer looks to his opponents or continue to create even more offense with his return game. He’s doing well with the latter, but once again the old tennis adage might be the answer to everything: “A player is only as good as his second serve.”