Rafael Nadal and Love-40

By Siddhant Guru

0-40. What does this score mean? If you’re serving, you have your heart in your mouth. You can’t afford to play a bad point now. You have to maximize the advantage of serving. If you’re returning, you have a lot more margin. You have done the hard bit of putting the opponent under pressure. Now, all you need to do is apply the finishing blow in this game. You have three chances to do that.

An average tennis player wins about 65% of their service points. Mathematically, there is about a one in five chance for a player to come back from 0-40 down. Obviously, this number varies for every player. Someone like Ivo Karlović has a better chance of coming back from 0-40 than someone like Diego Schwartzman.

Tennis is cruel and unforgiving. One of the major reasons for that is its quirky and unique scoring system. In tennis, you “merely” need to have the last word. You “only” have to win the final point of the match. Not all points are made equal. A point won at 30-30 is far more significant than a point won at 30-0. As such, for the server, winning a game from 0-40 down is huge. As a returner, breaking the opponent’s serve to love builds momentum in the set. This is especially true if it is a Grand Slam final.

Okay, why have I written a whole load of obvious nothingness? That is because these 0-40 games (which are few and far in between) are sometimes the key turning point in a match. One of those – 2-3 0-40 in the third set of the 2022 Australian Open men’s singles final. Rafael Nadal saved those three break points, held serve and went on to win a record-breaking 21st major title.

With his back against the wall, Nadal looks to the drop shot to save the first of three break points. Screenshot: Australian Open YouTube channel

My first instinct when Rafa saved those break points was, “He’s going to win this now”. As the dust settled on that historic night, I revisited my instincts. Why did I feel like that? From the evidence of that match, there was nothing to suggest Nadal would win, even after that big hold. Medvedev had a read on everything Rafa threw at him, he was clutch when the situation demanded him to be and up until then, he had put up one of the finest backhand performances I have ever seen in a Grand Slam final.

Yet, my first instinct was that Rafa had become the favorite. At that time, I chalked it down to my respect for Rafa as a competitor, his vast experience in these situations and most importantly that he is Rafa. All of that is true. However, none of that was sufficient for me. So, in these past few days, I have taken a dive into some of the Grand Slam finals that Rafa has played in. I didn’t get into the finals which he won or lost in straight sets since that obviously meant either he was too good for the opposition or that his opponent was too good for him. I however did include “virtual finals,” i.e. a semifinal against a Big Three counterpart. Why did I do that? My main motive was to check for 0-40!

Going through these finals, I found that Rafa has won almost 30% of all his service games when he fell 0-40 down. In contrast, until 2019, he had failed to convert 0-40 opportunities in a return game only twice in all his Grand Slam finals. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to find out those two games.

Naturally intrigued, I then decided to look at how the specific 0-40 games affected the dynamics of the respective matches. It’s of course not all that helpful if you survive 0-40 only to get broken in your next service game. I found out that every time Rafa held serve from 0-40 down, he went on to win the set barring one exception(Australian Open 2022 first set). In the 2006 and 2007 French Open finals vs Federer, Rafa saved 0-40 twice. In 2006, it was in the third set at 1-2. 

Figure: French Open 2006 Final, via the NBC broadcast.

He then broke Federer in the next game and went on to win the set. 

In 2007, it was in the first set at 4-3 right after he had broken Federer’s serve for the first time in the match. Rafa saved the breakpoints, then went on to break Federer’s serve again and won the set.

When it comes to the majors on hard courts, Rafa came back from the brink in the 3rd set of the 2009 Australian Open final, which was widely regarded as the turning point of the match.

Figure: Australian Open 2009 Final, via the Australian Open YouTube Channel.

The same happened in the 2013 US Open final, again in the 3rd set.

Figure: U.S. Open 2013 Final, via the U.S. Open YouTube Channel.

So far, it was clear to me that Rafa is absolutely elite at converting these huge opportunities. However, I didn’t fully understand the significance of “30%”. Was it better than his career average? Was it better than the tour average? I didn’t have an immediate answer. In search of this answer, I stumbled into this piece from Jeff Sackmann. It shows numbers from about six years back but I think it’s not unfair to assume that those numbers haven’t changed all that much.

In Grand Slam finals, Rafa is about +7% on his career average in winning games from 0-40. In tennis, that shift is hugely significant. It’s the difference between #20 and #21. As it turns out, that ability of his, to keep defying his opponent, may well have made him the greatest ever.

At this time, I can now understand my instinct. When his back is against the wall, Rafa produces his best tennis and reverses the momentum of the set, dealing a significant psychological blow to his opponent. He hangs around long enough for his opponent to start seeing ghosts where there are none.

At the end of the 2022 Australian Open final, Mark Petchey summarized the match as, “The line between desolation and elation was almost invisible.” In reality, it was visible. That line, for Rafa, was 2-6, 6-7, 2-3, 0-40.

5 thoughts on “Rafael Nadal and Love-40

  1. Nice piece. In that “exercise to the reader”, I’m not sure if you included virtual finals, but I distinctly remember Nadal wasting a 0-40 in the 5th set, maybe at 7-7, vs. Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2018.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I am down love-40 in a game, I always tell myself to go all out because you can break someone’s spirit if you win that game. Liked the quote in this piece about just hanging around. So important to do that. Rafa hangs around at the highest possible level of hanging around.

    Liked by 1 person

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