2013 French Open: Slow starts have forced Rafael Nadal to work overtime

USA TODAY Sports

Rafael Nadal came to Roland Garros, where he's won seven French Open titles and 52 of 53 matches, riding a 15-match winning streak overall. After a long layoff with knee tendonitis, he has reached the final of every tournament he has entered, and he has lost only once since mid-February. During said 15-match winning streak, he had dropped just three sets -- two to David Ferrer and one to Ernests Gulbis. His domination of men's clay court tennis led to our Advanced Baseline ratings to give him a patently ridiculous, 70-percent chance of winning the French Open.

Or to put it another way, AB decided he was more than twice as likely to win seven matches in a row against increasingly impressive competition as he was to not win seven matches in a row against increasingly impressive competition.

Nadal had won 18 of his last 20 sets versus an unseeded opponent; with the bar set this high, then, it has been a bit jarring to see him drop two sets in two matches. Both Daniel Brands (in the first round) and Martin Klizan (in the second) have stolen 6-4 opening sets from him, and while Nadal came back to win the next three sets in each match, his overall level of play is not quite as high as we perhaps expected it to be considering a) how ridiculously good he's been over the last two months and b) how ridiculously good he's been in his career at Roland Garros.

Is there something we should be concerned about regarding Nadal's play this week? Let's go to the stats to find out how and why he's losing the sets he's losing.

Nadal vs. Brands Nadal vs. Klizan Both Matches
Nadal Brands Nadal Brands Nadal Klizan Nadal Klizan Nadal Opp Nadal Opp
Set 1 Sets 2-4 Set 1 Sets 2-4 Lost Sets Won Sets
1st Serve % 70.8% 80.0% 87.6% 72.3% 57.7% 55.6% 79.7% 56.6% 64.0% 68.4% 84.0% 66.0%
1st Serve Win% 82.4% 66.7% 76.9% 61.7% 80.0% 66.7% 72.9% 46.5% 81.3% 66.7% 75.2% 56.5%
2nd Serve Win% 57.1% 83.3% 72.7% 54.8% 45.5% 83.3% 33.3% 45.5% 50.0% 83.3% 50.0% 50.0%
Return Winners per received serve 3.3% 4.2% 13.4% 12.4% 0.0% 3.8% 9.2% 10.8% 1.8% 4.0% 11.7% 11.7%
Return Errors per received serve 13.3% 25.0% 8.0% 23.6% 14.8% 34.6% 11.8% 20.3% 14.0% 30.0% 9.6% 22.1%
Winners per point 11.1% 16.7% 13.9% 15.4% 5.7% 9.4% 12.0% 11.3% 8.4% 13.1% 13.1% 13.7%
Winners & Opponent Forced Errors per point 16.7% 25.9% 23.9% 24.4% 9.4% 20.8% 23.3% 20.7% 13.1% 23.4% 23.6% 22.8%
Unforced Errors per point 11.1% 20.4% 6.5% 17.4% 11.3% 24.5% 12.0% 20.7% 11.2% 22.4% 8.8% 18.8%
Total Points Win% 50.0% 50.0% 56.2% 43.8% 45.3% 54.7% 59.3% 40.7% 47.7% 52.3% 57.5% 42.5%

There's quite a bit of data here. Here are some of the things the table is telling me:

  • It's taking Nadal a while to get a read on these big hitters' serves. On average, both Brands and Klizan had just about the same first-serve percentage in sets Nadal has won and lost. In the first sets, Nadal is winning only about 33 percent of opponents' first-serve points; in the other sets, he's winning nearly 50 percent. Only two percent of his returns go for winners in the sets he loses; that number rises to 12 percent in the sets he wins. Meanwhile, his return errors go down by about a third as well.
  • It's also taking Nadal a while to begin dictating points. Take a look at the "Winners & Opponent Forced Errors per point" measure about. "Forced Errors" are a very underrated statistic; you don't have to hit a winner on every point if you're hitting shots your opponent cannot deal with effectively. Combining winners and forced errors gives us a look at who is dictating the play. When Nadal loses the set, only about 13 percent of points end in either a Nadal winner or an opponent's forced error. In the sets he wins, that number nearly doubles to 24 percent. His opponents are dictating the same percentage of points (23 percent) in all sets, but Nadal is kicking into fourth and fifth gear more frequently as the match unfolds; by the fourth set this percentage has risen to 30 percent.
  • Nadal's serve has been a bit erratic early on. In his two poor sets, Nadal's first-serve percentage is at just 64 percent, and while he wins a very high percentage of his first-serve points, he's giving opponents a few too many looks at his second serve; in each match, he's had his serve broken for this very reason. Following the breaks, he seems to take a bit off of his first serve (average first-serve speed in the sets he loses: 175 KM/hour; in sets he wins: 172) to keep his percentages higher. It's resulting in a less-effective first serve, but a less-effective first serve is still much better than a second serve.

Because he has lost the first set in each of these matches, it is easy to draw the conclusion that Nadal's simply starting slow, then picking up steam. That is quite possibly the case. It's been a chilly, wet first week in Paris, and for somebody who plays Nadal's brand of full-body, full-contact tennis, one could see how it might take him a while to warm up, so to speak. And as Grantland's Brian Phillips points out, the weather also means a compacted schedule for the rest of the tournament. After all, while Roger Federer and David Ferrer have already cruised through to the fourth round, Nadal won't be able to play even his third-round match until Saturday. That could catch up to him.

So what's next? Nadal's first two opponents have been big power hitters, but his third-round opponent, Fabio Fognini, is not. A 5'10 counterpuncher, Fognini has faced Nadal just once, in Rome earlier this May, and lost, 6-1, 6-3. Nadal dominated Fognini's serve, winning more than half of Fognini's first-serve points and breaking five times in eight service games. He created 11 break-point opportunities to Fognini's three.

Fognini is the type of opponent Nadal should dominate. If Nadal starts slowly again, then it's officially an issue. As it stands, however, it appears that in the first two rounds Nadal has simply started slowly (in conditions conducive for such a thing) against precisely the type of opponent who can punish him for it. If he continues to dawdle, he could find serious trouble in a potential quarterfinal match versus Richard Gasquet or, of course, in a semifinal versus Novak Djokovic. But for now, we'll chalk it up to a confluence of factors that might not continue as the tournament heads toward its second week.

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