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Why Djokovic and Nadal dominate men's tennis

BY Stephen Adams

15th Feb 2023 Sport

Why Djokovic and Nadal dominate men's tennis

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal may be in their mid-thirties but when you’re two of the greatest tennis players of all time it means you're still winning Grand Slams

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are two of the greatest tennis players in history. Nadal or Djokovic have won 14 out of the last 20 Grand Slam tournaments (The Australian Open, The US Open, Wimbledon, and The French Open) and now hold 22 Grand Slam titles each—the joint most of any male player in history.

Both men are now in their thirties yet are still winning the majority of the biggest prizes. How have they been able to rule men’s tennis for so long?

The king of clay

Nadal and Djokovic dominating tennis—Rafael Nadal about to smash a tennis ballNadal's topspin is unmatched and gives him an edge against opponents on clay

The stats show that Nadal and Djokovic have a preferred surface, where they dominate the men’s game. Nadal has won an incredible 14 of the last 18 Roland Garros titles in Paris on the iconic red clay. Nadal dominates on clay thanks to his unique level of topspin. Nadal's average forehand clocks in around 3,200 RPMs. To put this in perspective, Nadal's RPMs on forehand shots are about 20 per cent higher on average than the forehand of greats such as Roger Federer (2,500 RPMs forehand average).

"Nadal has won 14 of the last 18 Roland Garros titles in Paris on the iconic red clay, thanks to his unique level of topspin"

The topspin provides a couple of advantages on the softer clay surface. Topspin delivers a higher bounce on clay, making it harder to return with power. The additional spin also enables Nadal to spin the ball out of the court and drag his opponent wider. Nadal’s stamina and physicality to wear down opponents is also a major factor. As he constructs long, punishing rallies, he pushes opponents out of position, before hitting a flatter winning shot.

Hard court genius

Novak Djokovic playing tennis in 2018Djokovic wins around a third of games against serve, while the average is just 20 per cent

Novak Djokovic has plenty of clay titles to his name but lags behind Nadal on the surface in Grand Slam titles and in their head-to-head record on the red dirt. Djokovic, however, is a genius on hard courts, where he can use his freakish physique, flexibility and speed to absorb and return even the fastest serves. This skill frequently disarms the weapons of his opponents, meaning they get very few free or cheap points even during their own service games.  

While Nadal’s success on clay is related to his spin, Djokovic’s success lies in his ability to neutralise opponents while returning and turning the odds in his favour. Djokovic uses a wide stance, expert timing and reading his opponent's tendencies to send back a high percentage return. Once the ball is in play, he can use his own offensive weapons and athleticism to compete against anyone on tour in a ground strokes rally.

"Djokovic is a genius on hard courts, using his physique, flexibility and speed to absorb and return even the fastest serves"

The result is that Djokovic wins around a third of his return of service games. Historical data shows that the average on the ATP tour over a ten-year period from 2008-2018 was around a 20 per cent chance of breaking serve.

Djokovic has 13 Grand Slam titles on hard courts with his recent Australian Open final opponent Stefanos Tsitispas claiming “he is the greatest that has ever held a tennis racquet.”

Better science and longevity

Djokovic beats Nadal at the Rome Masters tennis tournament in 2016Djokovic and Nadal going head to head at the Rome Masters in 2016. Djokovic won this match

Modern tennis players now benefit from an entourage of support; personal trainers, coaches and nutritionists—all backing up the player with the latest science. Djokovic credits much of his success to the decision to change to a gluten-free diet, which increased how energetic he felt.

Taking this team on tour around the world costs significant money. Nadal and Djokovic have been able to use their early successes to afford to pay the best. This has helped them to maintain an advantage, improve their physical ability and tennis technique to perform at the highest level for longer. Success attracts the best from other disciplines who also want to win and helps to create an ongoing cycle of victories for the two champions.

Psychology

Djokovic holding high the 2019 Wimbledon tennis trophyDjokovic winning Wimbledon in 2019

Much of what Nadal and Djokovic do better than anyone else on tour is related to their mental fortitude. Through Nadal’s coaching from his uncle Tony, he learned not to be influenced by his opponent or the behaviour of the crowd. The control Nadal holds over his emotions on court puts him at an advantage over many other players. Djokovic grew up in the 1990s in war-torn Serbia as his family endured crisis and sanctions. This formative experience gave Djokovic the mental strength to never give up on court.

"Experience winning Grand Slams is a huge psychological advantage against others chasing their first title victory"

Both players' desire to win is evident—they do not give up on a point no matter how far behind they appear to be in a rally. Experience winning Grand Slams is a huge psychological advantage against others chasing their first Grand Slam victory. Nadal and Djokovic are very unlikely to suffer from performance anxiety compared to those who have yet to prove they can win Grand Slam titles.

How many more Grand Slam titles will Nadal and Djokovic win?  

Nadal volleying the ball at the French Open in 2012Nadal playing at the French Open in 2012, which he went on to win

While Roger Federer's injuries and limited appearances before his retirement at age 41 show even the greatest players of all time can’t go on forever, it would be foolish to bet against Nadal and Djokovic adding several more Grand Slams to their haul. Playing against the unique tennis skills of Nadal and Djokovic is difficult. When you add in the psychological challenge of playing against a legend of the sport, it's a different game altogether.

Banner photo: Sky Sports

For more on the respective tennis stars, you can read Novak Djokovic: And the Rise of Serbia and Rafa Nadal: The King of the Court, both available on Amazon.

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