In 2011 Novak Djokovic seemed to solve the riddle of Rafael Nadal, then world’s tennis #1. He found a secret to success and a dent in Rafa’s armor. He beat Rafa seven consecutive times (two of those on clay) and finally dethroned him that same year.

Now, after shaking off an injury that kept him off the court for seven months, it appears Nadal has found an answer to the riddle of his most troubling nemesis.

As New York Times described it after their French Open match last Friday, it’s Djokovic’s move now, in this fascinating chess game of a rivalry.1

Djokovic and Nadal at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters in 2008

Djokovic and Nadal at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters in 2008 (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Attacking opportunities evolve from strength

We focus on the best players in tennis to try to uncover the higher truth from both sports, and beyond, that may give us a deeper strategic insight and the secret to what it takes to be dominant.

A couple of previous posts have shown us that we should be vitally focused on building up and maintaining a formidable position in order to win any battle of our life. It is important to point out that attack and defense, like two faces of the same coin, both derive from this strength.

We defend when we are not strong enough. We must always protect ourselves to stay in the game. Success depends entirely upon this ability to survive long enough for an opportunity to present itself later on. The “time to move” is when the trends are in our favor. Life is full of opportunities but we can’t take advantage of any of them before we improve our position out of weakness. Strategists always seek positions that are powerful. Only when they have a surplus of strength can they attack which implies movement and action while using an opportunity from a position of strength.

“This seemingly limitless ability to defend is yet another form of pressure that Nadal exerts on Djokovic. But he is anything but a defensive player. In the fifth set, Nadal hit an astonishing 22 winners, 7 more than Djokovic. What is incredible to watch in Nadal is his willingness to defend tenaciously, then go on the offensive in the blink of an eye.”1

Building up your game

But what allows Nadal to shift from offensive to defensive movement, to control strategy and pace? He does it less by the shots he hits than by how he arrives at them.2

The best players win points because they built them. It’s sort of brickwork, shall I say masonry. In a way, all best players are great masons.

Masonic chess gameboard

Masonic Chess is a chess variant invented by George Dekle, Sr. in 1983 (the moves of men are adapted to the new geometry; in other respects the game is the same as chess)

Everyone can hit a ball. You may have spent hours and hours on the practice court working on how to hit it, or you may have worked on various tactics on the chessboard a great deal.

Yet, strokes in tennis and chess are practically pointless without strategy that gives them direction. Tennis and chess are not about hitting winners, it’s about constructing points to optimize your chance of winning.

“It’s important to know the point is not only with one shot,” Tony Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and coach.

You really shouldn’t throw your weight into a single stroke, especially when your opponent is on guard. You can’t hit him with effect unless the opportunity has been built.

“Rafael Nadal constructs points on clay as if playing chess,” points Justin Gimelstob, “except Rafa has four queens.”3

This strategic thinking may explain Nadals’ domination, notably on slow clay, where game is less tactical and more strategic compared to hard courts (think Western chess that is less dynamic and more strategic compared to Chinese chess).

Strategy always implies forethought. “The best clay court players think two shots ahead, and Nadal,” Jose Higueras4 ventured, “seemed to think three or four shots in advance.”2

“Rafa’s best attribute on clay is his least noticeable,” Higueras adds, “He has the best head in tennis. Or maybe in sports.”5

If only we could hear Djokovic’s thoughts on this…


1. The Secrets of Nadal’s Success, Geoff Macdonald in The New York Times, June 8, 2013

2. Molded for Success on Clay Courts, Greg Bishop in The NYT, June 7, 2012

3. Justin Gimelstob is the Tennis Channel analyst.

4. Jose Higueras, a United States Tennis Association coach, the man behind French Open titles won by Michael Chang and Jim Courier.

5. “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved,” Sun Tzu.

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