Tennis: Why the great sport is no longer about rallying

We’ve become accustomed to the baseline game, but it looks like things are about to shift forward in a sport dominated by the big three on the men’s side…

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With three majors in a row and an ever-growing lead atop the ATP rankings, Novak Djokovic is clearly the best man on the tennis circuit right now.

If he can manage to dethrone Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, there will be serious talk of a ‘calendar grand slam’. This feat was achieved only once in the men’s professional game by Rod Laver a half-century ago.

Heading into the Australian Open, many pundits would have thought ‘whatever you do, don’t get into a long rally with Djokovic’. This is a sound statement given the Serb’s frightening consistency, enviable stamina and Stretch Armstrong-like flexibility.

Unfortunately for the lads on tour, figures show that the 31-year-old rarely lets you last that long as just two swings of his racquet tends to be enough.

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Craig O’Shannessy, an ATP stats guru who also works with Djokovic, recently wrote a fascinating piece on the ATP’s site where he highlighted how tennis matches are won at the highest level.

According to Infosys, 70% of rallies in the 2019 Australian Open lasted four shots or fewer. That figure has also been pretty consistent for the past five years in Melbourne. Interestingly, only a 10th of rallies lasted longer than nine shots.

When we think back to that epic 2017 Australian Open final between Federer and Nadal, a moment that stands out is that 26-shot rally for the ages:

It’s magnificent no doubt, but it only happened because the routine failed. Federer’s superhuman defensive skills prevented the Spaniard from winning with his first three strikes.

The Swiss’ third shot, a loopy forehand of superb depth, pushed Nadal back behind the baseline. The server’s advantage in the rally was gone and we got to enjoy a prolonged exchange of brilliant shots.

Like a gracious tweet from Donald Trump, the rally stood out due to its rarity.

The next time you watch Djokovic, Nadal or Federer, pay attention to their service games and check out the patterns. They are masters of keeping points short, if in slightly different ways.

One outcome they all seek: ‘if the serve comes back, make sure you’re on your forehand!’

Federer loves to swing his serve out wide on the deuce court (right side). With the opponent scrambling back to cover the space, the maestro can either take his forehand down the line or wrongfoot the opponent by whipping it crosscourt. Two shots, next point.

Djokovic also likes the wide serve on the deuce side, but has the added advantage of a devastating double-handed backhand. If the Serb receives a short reply off his serve, he’s not too concerned about which side to strike with given the quality of both strokes. Either way, it’s usually two shots, next point.

As for Nadal, he’s a lefty of course. The ad side (left court) is his best friend. A wide serve opens up the court for the Spaniard and you better believe he will shimmy all the way to the moon to get on that forehand. Again, two shots, next point.

It helps that the trio can each hit every type of serve (flat, slice, topspin) and land the ball in whichever corner they desire more often than not. When you combine the aces, unreturned serves and one-two patterns, it’s no wonder that the top players burst out to 40-0 leads so often.

If we take the case of the world no.1, everyone would acknowledge Djokovic as one of, if not the best, returners of all-time. He is aided immensely though by his ruthless service games.

If he is rattling along on serve, with barely a sniff of an extended rally, imagine how relaxed he feels when it’s time to receive. It’s a scary and untouchable combination right now.

So, are we all off to the court to practice those first two shots? It works pretty well for these guys.

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