Nadal Succumbs to Dustin Brown’s Moneyball Stats at Wimbledon

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a backhand in his Gentlemens Singles Second Round match against Dustin Brown of Germany during day four of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships in London. Photographer: Ian Walton/Getty Images

As Rafael Nadal prepared to serve in the third set Thursday at Wimbledon, his unseeded opponent, Dustin Brown, moved two steps wider than normal to attack the ball.

And whenever the left-handed Spaniard served from the other side -- known as the deuce side -- Brown tried to return down the middle of the grass court in London. The German’s strategy flummoxed the 14-time major champion, who lost 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 to the 102nd-ranked qualifier.

Brown’s secret weapon? His own tennis version of Moneyball, the statistical analysis made famous by baseball’s Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s.

“It was literally the greatest moment of my tennis life,” Craig O’Shannessy, lead statistician on the men’s and women’s tennis tours who advised Brown on tactics before the match, said in an interview at Wimbledon.

O’Shannessy uses tagging software made by Swiss company Dartfish to analyze matches and work out specific patterns of play. Dartfish’s program is used by dozens of sports organizations and governing bodies as well as elite athletes including Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt.

O’Shannessy is the lead statistician for the Australian Open, and a former coach to women’s tour pro Melinda Czink.

“In the ad court, you’ve got to stand wider against Nadal,” said O’Shannessy, who also runs his own company, Brain Game Tennis. “In the 2010 final, Tomas Berdych didn’t do that and he got chopped. Players are so comfortable being inside the court that they don’t want to move out,” on their receiving stance.

Coaching Help

For the first two sets, O’Shannessy said, Brown forgot about the Australian’s advice. Brown, who’s made $40,000 so far this year, usually plays on the men’s second-tier Challenger circuit and can’t afford a coach. O’Shannessy helps him out occasionally.

At the start of the third set, Brown remembered the advice and ended up breaking Nadal once in that set and once in the fourth set.

O’Shannessy had also told Brown to return down the line while receiving serve in the deuce court because Nadal tends to run around his backhand to leave “a monster hole” ready to exploit.

The six-foot-five (1.96-meter) tall German of Jamaican heritage was also aggressive on his own serve, winning 71 of 99 serve-and-volley points. Nadal won the only point he played with that tactic.

O’Shannessy was surprised the former top-ranked Nadal wasn’t able to find a solution.

“Nadal doesn’t normally need a plan B against anyone in the world,” he said. “He needed one against Dustin and he didn’t go to it.”

Take it Away

Even in junior tennis, “if the opponent’s taking the net away from me, I need to get there first,” he said. “It’s a basic strategy. I was surprised Rafa didn’t come to the net more to take the net away from Dustin. He served and volleyed once and I was like, ‘Uh oh, I hope we don’t see more of this.’ Well, we didn’t.”

Brown plays Serbia’s Viktor Troicki of Serbia Saturday in the third round. Should he win that match, a possible clash awaits with 2013 champion Andy Murray of Britain.

“Troicki’s a different opponent, he’s got different strengths and weaknesses, Dustin’s got 90 percent already in the can, he’s going to be coming forward, that’s not going to change,” O’Shannessy said. “But we need to add the last 10 percent that says exactly where will this attacking be done, exactly where will you be standing. We’ll put the icing on the cake and encourage Dustin to put it all down.”

Comfort Zone

Brown, 30, said he wanted to push Nadal into areas of the court where he didn’t want to be.

“The point is whatever I do is to take him out of his comfort zone,” the dreadlocked German said after the biggest win of his life. “If I would stay in the back and rally with him left, right, that would not be a very good match for me.”

Nadal never felt comfortable.

“Serving first and second almost the same speed,” he said about Brown, who has now beaten him twice on grass. “Without having rhythm at all. I didn’t hit three balls in a row the same way. Then when you need to hit that ball, extra ball, you don’t have the confidence to do it.”

For O’Shannessy, sitting on Centre Court and getting a win as a coach was a dream come true. As a 12-year-old boy growing up in Australia, he used to go bed at 7:30 p.m. and then get up at 1 a.m. to watch the tennis at Wimbledon. Also in the box on Centre Court was Scott Wittenberg, an American who owns a tennis academy in Hannover, Germany who has been helping Brown out during the grass court season.

“Wimbledon was like this fantasy land on the other side of the world that came alive at midnight,” O’Shannessy said. “To have Nadal in the big house and to win that match, it doesn’t get any better than that. It was the best moment you could ever have.”

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