Posts Tagged ‘Steffi Graf’

Tennis tactics – learning from the Australian Open 1993 final (Graf-Seles)

July 3, 2020

TL DR:  It was not Graf backhand breaking down/stubborn slicing that lost her the match but Seles unexpectedly and brilliantly adjusting her tactics by stepping inside and taking the ball very early and Graf’s own inability to replicate that due to her late contact on the forehand.  As well, Seles’ ability to hurt Graf on the forehand corner not only won her points but eventually shattered Graf’s confidence in her trusted weapon.

Detailed analysis follows below.

The Australian Open (AO) 1993 women’s singles final between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles was at the time regarded as possibly the greatest grand slam women’s singles final.  It would still rank as one of the best.  While that has more to do with ‘drama’, the narrative itself was fascinating.  They had split their two grand slam encounters in 1992 (and the only two times they played each other that year), with Seles winning with great difficulty at the French Open and Graf romping to a straight sets win at Wimbledon (which however came under the cloud of Seles being instructed not to grunt).  Whether rightly or not, the Australian Open bout was seen as a ‘neutral’ venue to ‘decide’ the match up.

I put these words in quotes because these are simplistic and fallacious parallels often drawn by tennis fans (and even the commentators at times, in trying to spice up the proceedings) to boxing, but tennis does not operate like boxing. Nevertheless, Nastase himself said in the run up to the Australian Open 2009 final that Nadal was already the king of clay and with the 2008 Wimbledon win, was the king of grass so the question now was whether he could become king of hard court as well.  This, of course, ignores Federer’s two prior triumphs over Nadal at Wimbledon (in fact Fed owns the Wimbledon H2H comfortably at 3-1 over Nadal but you wouldn’t know it to hear the punditry) and also that there is a second hard court slam, US Open, which doesn’t play quite like AO.

Speaking of Federer-Nadal, there is likewise a temptation on the part of tennis fans to equate their rivalry to Graf-Seles.  Right-left, one hander-double hander, the parallels seem obvious.  And yet, they are inaccurate and the differences between their match ups underline how good Nadal had to be to take on Federer on his own turf and beat him there.

I will get to those differences during the analysis but another reason, apart from the ‘drama’ angle, why this match is interesting is such matches have become rare at the WTA.  Due to the lack of heavyweight bouts, players simply play their own game against each other (this isn’t my say so, Evert and Navratilova said so as well). Matches can be exciting to watch but rarely do we come across tactical patterns in the match up in the way there were in Graf-Seles (and likewise in Big 4 match ups).

I will post the best quality full match link I could find on Youtube as also the tennis abstract charts.  After quickly running through the statistical highlights, I will discuss the point patterns and how they related to strengths and weaknesses.


I strongly recommend opening the above video in YouTube so that you don’t have to scroll up again and again to look at different stamps.  And below are the stats:

From the statistics, it can be seen why this match is highly regarded. Graf had 21 winners to 33 unforced errors and Seles had 29 winners to 37 unforced errors.  A net positive ratio would look amazing but considering the pace at which both traded blows, those are solid numbers. Graf had first serve won percentage of 60.3% and 50% on second serve.  Seles had 65.4% and 57.1% respectively.  Just how often do you see both finalists win 50% or more points of second serve?  Not very often unless it’s a Williams sisters special. Osaka and Kvitova played out a solid final too at the AO in 2019 and their second serve numbers were 45.2% and 46.3% respectively. Kenin had outstanding second serve numbers this year but Muguruza managed only 29.4%. Halep was sub 50% as well in 2018 v/s Wozniacki. My point is made. It was a high quality, hard fought final on balance.

However, let me drill down on these numbers to dispel an oft paraded myth about this match (again, a myth that Mary Carillo herself helped popularise).  People point to these numbers to say Seles beat Graf all ends up in every department in spite of Graf pulling out all stops.  That is half-true and half not-true.  There is a good reason why we look at setwise numbers because the story of each set is different.  That’s the case here too.  Here is a rather big-ass table with the numbers.  You can, of course, find the same numbers on the tennis abstract link as well:


First serve in % First serve won % Second serve won % RPW% Winners Unforced Errors
Set 1  
Graf 72.7 58.3 66.7 46.7 7 10
Seles 63.3 52.6 54.5 39.4 12 16
Set 2  
Graf 64.0 56.3 55.6 34.6 6 10
Seles 53.8 71.4 58.3 44.0 11 12
Set 3  
Graf 69.2 66.7 25.0 29.2 8 13
Seles 79.2 73.7 60.0 46.2 6 9

We see a few patterns from this data:

  1. In both sets 1 and 2, Graf got in a lot of first serves but wasn’t winning a particularly high percentage off them.  Whereas Seles got in fewer first serves but won more off it (particularly set 2).
  2. In set 3, both upped their first serve game but Seles to unbelievable levels.  Graf got in 69.2% and won 66.7%, which makes it the most she won off her first serve (if we count all first serves as opposed to just the ones she got in). But Seles got in a whopping 79.2% and still won 73.7% of those first serves.  Basically she shut Graf out of 58.3% of all first serves in set 3.
  3. Corresponding to this, Graf’s RPW kept dropping from excellent numbers in the first set to pretty mediocre in the third while it was the opposite for Seles.
  4. Graf’s second serve won % again was incredible in set 1, solid in set 2 and abysmal in set 3. Seles was solid in set 1 and got better and better, reaching 60% in set 3.
  5. The last interesting aspect is the winners to UEs of both. Graf’s numbers were almost the same in both set 1 and set 2 and her winners were single digit.  She was waiting on Seles to make the play. Seles made the play in both set 1 and 2.  In set 1, she was less successful with a higher gap between winners and UEs but in set 2, she narrowed the difference to a net -1. This seemed to turn the tables and it was Graf who got more desperate to make the play in set 3.  But she only succeeded in slightly improving winners for significantly more UEs, while Seles’ numbers mirrored Graf’s in the first set.

From these data points by themselves, we can conclude a few things that are also corroborated by what we see in the match.  Seles started slow and got better through the match while Graf started strong and struggled to keep up the level throughout the match.  And in the third set, just as Seles peaked, Graf played her worst tennis of the match, resulting in the most lop sided of the three sets.  From the visual of Graf clutching her abdomen and lightly rubbing it at 1:25:52 (among other indications), we can also infer that the prolonged physical and tactical battle had worn down Graf both physically and mentally (OK, sounds kinda captain obvious when I put it that way!). This could also be why she pretty much gave up on the last game of the match (uncharacteristically so), bringing a tame end to an otherwise hard fought and very interesting contest.

Now let’s get to the analysis.  As I mentioned earlier, there are significant differences between this and the Federer-Nadal matchup and hence, applying the ‘Seles attacked Graf backhand to win’ theory is flawed.

  1. Federer is one of the best in the business on the men’s side when it comes to hitting on the rise with possibly only Djokovic and Agassi shading him among the all time greats.  The equivalent early/on the rise great on the women’s side is Seles, not Graf.
  2. Conversely, Graf in fact takes the ball pretty late on the forehand side where Federer takes it early.  This does not make it not a weapon but it does impose some limitations which took a creative tactician like Seles to expose.
  3. Even being the older player, Graf was still a better athlete than Seles.  This was evident especially at Wimbledon ’92, where the rain made the grass slick and Graf had no problems running the entire length of the baseline to cover court while Seles was rushed.  On the other hand, Nadal in his twenties was a panther and certainly quicker than Federer. Related, this is why the outcome of the AO match may not have necessarily predicted a USO duel between Seles and Graf (and while both those were post stabbing, Graf did beat Seles at USO on those occasions).  This is counter-intuitive, but the pace of the court makes it harder for Seles to take it early in the case of Wimbledon/USO while it gives Graf more pace to work with so that her late contact doesn’t necessarily result in weak shots, while at AO she HAS to strike the ball hard every time.
  4. Federer comes over the backhand a lot and while he does often run around his backhand, he doesn’t always park himself in the backhand corner.  Hence, the patterns Nadal needed to employ to hurt Federer were different from Seles against Graf.

Let’s discuss movement a little more as we start to break down the chinks in Graf’s armour that Seles exploited.  In terms of pure physical movement, Graf was monstrously good. I mentioned Wimbledon ’92; check out from 6:05.  Seles has opened up the forehand corner and attacks but Graf manages to hang in there with incredible hustle and eventually wins the point with impossible mobility (note: this is the first and last reference to the Wimbledon match and all timestamps up ahead will be of the AO match again).

HOWEVER, when it comes to tactically using the movement to her advantage, Graf wasn’t the greatest.  For one thing, she tended to lean on moving to the backhand corner all the time.  This meant that sometimes she struggled to move from to the right of the hash mark to the forehand corner to cover an attack into that area.

Watch the point at 16:30.  Seles’ return is into Graf’s forehand side and she hits a reasonably good forehand but down the middle and Seles sends a harder, flatter stroke closer to singles alley.  This time, Graf is unable to cover the two steps she needs to get to the ball in time and is forced to lob. Seles is quick to seize on the opportunity and hits a swing volley off the lob for a winner.

There are two observations also to be made from that point, apart from demonstrating how Seles was able to time and again open up the forehand side even without grinding down the Graf backhand in the way Nadal would have against Federer. The first is that Graf’s shot selection was not always purposeful through the match and she served up many neutral balls with pace for Seles to redirect suitably.  Seles on the other hand targeted the court geometry astutely to set up points.  Related is the second point, which is that Graf didn’t hit a single swing volley in the match.  Graf did approach the net a few times and was successful in her endeavours on balance but the reason she didn’t approach more often is she tended to rush straight to net rather than use transition steps.  This suggests to me that she was somewhere not feeling super comfortable taking forehands early and inside the court on that day (and in general too, I would not say she used the short ball forehand as much as you’d expect an attacking baseliner like her to).

The point at 1:28:34 (facing break point on her serve at 2-3 in the third set) highlights the above.  Seles floats the return.  All Graf has to do is step in and kill the forehand.  But watch her footwork into the shot.  First of all, she is not moving in decisively.  She watches the ball for quite a bit before deciding she has to step in.  And then, she takes several short steps to get to the ball instead of big, ‘dancing’ steps. As a result, she’s both a bit late getting to the ball and also lacking the momentum big steps would give her.  The outcome: she blows an easy forehand way long and walks off in a huff, the decisive, ‘fatal’ break of serve duly handed over to Seles.

Let’s change tacks a bit now.  As we can see from the stats, the first set was very closely matched.  After a nervous start, Seles steadied and Graf assisted her by handing back the early break as she had a brief walkabout in a service game.  But Graf held an edge throughout the first set and Seles conceded the break again, this time down 4-5, giving Graf the set.

It looked all nicely set up for Graf going into 1-1 in the second.  But, against the run of play, she went off the boil even as Seles produced a couple of great returns and conceded the early break.  From there on, the patterns of the first set more or less continued. Graf still seemed to be producing more weight of shot with Seles often standing a little behind the baseline to handle the barrage.  But Graf wasn’t able to create break points coming into the game at 4-3, a Seles service game.  This was a must win game for Graf and for Seles, it was particularly important to shut Graf out of this game.

The very first point of this game, starting 59:26 on the Seles second serve, shows Seles changing the pattern.  Note here: Seles was in the lead but it was she, and not Graf, who chose to break the pattern to grab the bull by the horns. Anyhow, as the rally starts, we notice Seles now staying put inside the baseline. And she keeps boldly attacking the Graf forehand (NOT the Graf backhand) with it. Graf keeps hitting forehands down the middle but is rattled by the time taken away and at 59:34, produces a weaker forehand. It’s not a floater, it’s just a little slower.  But it’s enough for Seles to immediately adjust the angle and pull Graf wide.  Graf copes well the first time around but the second time of asking, she is forced to lob, yet again.  Graf defends Seles’ smash well but Seles steps in again to attack Graf’s forehand yet again.  This time, Seles smashes the Graf lob right on the line and wins the point.

In fact, as a contrast to the above, at 1:02:00 (30 all), Graf returns with the slice and stays on slice throughout.  It’s Seles who ends up pulling her attempted down the line winner long.  What is interesting is Seles persisted with the pattern even though this delivered mixed results.  The reason for this could be that Seles wanted to keep Graf off-balance and not let her get used to one pattern of play.

Two contrasting attacks into Graf’s backhand slice suggest as much.  In the above game, the point at deuce (1:03:12) has Seles trading forehands with Graf’s slice.  But notice she is often dropping the forehands short or hitting them off-pace.  This was intentional; she was softening Graf and lulling her into a repetitive pattern.  Note: Graf did not switch the pattern at any point in the rally to a topspin backhand even though, no, she was not being rushed and it would not have been impossible to come over on the backhand on those balls. Graf also maintains the more conservative court position of the two even though Seles is not rushing her on the backhand. At 1:03:58, Seles baits Graf with a forehand bouncing on the service line.  Graf duly slices it back cross court.  But she has now given Seles too much time and Seles simply steps in and goes down the line.  This shot failed her at 30 all but she didn’t back off; she went for it and this time hit it with a lot of margin.  With Graf now safely ensconced in a comfort zone in the backhand corner, she didn’t even budge even though Seles’ shot wasn’t very deep nor hit at a blistering pace. Seles had masterfully lulled her into ignoring a weak court position.  It’s like chess, pretty much.  Graf was evidently furious with herself and tried to jump all over the second serve on game point, but only managed to deposit the forehand into the net.

Contrast this with another pivotal point, this time from the third set.  1:32:25.  Seles leading 4-2 and serving at deuce, Graf again needing very badly to break her to stay in the hunt.  Seles again worked Graf into a slice handcuff but through a different route this time.  In the point from the second set, Graf had hit a down the line slice return that Seles had immediately gone cross court off, forcing Graf to move across to her backhand corner.

In this point from the third set, Graf, now wise to Seles’ tactics, hits the return inside out (yes, an inside out slice landing only a few feet inside the baseline!). Seles hits it back to Graf’s backhand with Graf now standing in the middle. Graf now pushes the slice much closer to singles alley at which point Seles has her on the run on the forehand. But not hard enough to produce a lob.  Again, Seles is baiting her, offering her a shot at a forehand winner.  Graf doesn’t bite and hits a strong but not lethal cross court forehand. Seles switches back to a backhand attack. We seem to be drifting back into a pattern similar to the point from the second set.

Until, at 1:32:45, Seles ratchets up the pace and depth, pushing Graf on the defensive.  Look at the very next Seles shot, how far inside she steps in to take her shot.  She is going almost half volley and you can see Graf has to hurry to set up her next shot. I wish there was close-up slo-mo of this point (and especially this juncture of the point) but it looks to me as if Graf is kind of scooping up the slice to force a drive on it.  She is rushed and not able to cut through the ball as much as she would normally.

Once again, instead of grinding down Graf with more such on the rise shots, Seles baits Graf creatively.  She offers her a softer ball and Graf immediately switches the line of attack from Seles’ backhand to her forehand.  It is now Graf baiting her to go down the line on her forehand.

Seles duly takes the bait but not in the way Graf would have wanted.  At 1:32:52, Seles hits it down the line with a short-ish length and decent but not extravagant pace.  It’s also not too close to the line.  It’s a smart target, basically. Graf now has to run a few steps across to cover the forehand.  You can tell from her moan she is not enjoying that.

In fact, Seles makes a calculated bet that Graf is hiding her queasiness on the forehand side after previous errors on big points.  She trusts Graf to be tentative on the shot and sure enough, look at the forehand Graf hits.  It’s a few feet short of the service line and yet not short enough to be short-angle.  It’s a nothing-burger basically and Seles easily covers it.  Once more, rather than going for the kill, Seles baits Graf, pretty much inviting her to go cross court on the forehand again.  But Seles’ shot is deeper this time and Graf in her anxiousness to attack, ends up getting rushed.  She has to hit way closer to the bounce than she prefers and she ends up botching the forehand as it sails way long.  The mixture of anger and exasperation on Graf’s face says it all; she has checked out of the match at this point.

In a certain sense, then, the diehard Graf fans have it right.  It was not Seles troubling Graf through 1991-92 and instead, when Graf was able to play her best, her athleticism and power could overwhelm Seles (Wimbledon as well as US Hardcourt championships ’91).  Hence, Seles had to construct a gameplan around outthinking her, not outhitting her.  Seles had to push Graf into a pattern where she would beat herself and that is exactly what happened by the end of the match. Seles also showed great flexibility in making adjustments mid-match and proactively, not reactively.  She could have easily been lulled into repeating the same patterns at 4-3 in the second set.  The result likely would have been Graf breaking her and maybe going on to win the match.  But she stayed one step ahead of Graf.  Likewise, when Graf belatedly started to adjust her returning patterns, Seles was once again wise to the change and adjusted her own attack to keep Graf off-balance.

From a recreational player’s point of view, these are some of the takeaways from this match:

  1.  Rather than pure power, understanding the geometry of where you position yourself in the court and where you hit the ball to is not only more important but more effective as well.
  2. Except when you are defending big hitting from the other side, it is important to be purposeful with your groundstrokes.
  3. This is an elaboration of 2. If you’re inclined to follow a low-risk, defensive strategy, go deep at your opponent’s weakness.  If you want to be aggressive, go wide at your opponent’s strength. That is, make them play the shot rather than try to put it where they cannot make a shot because the latter is not only harder, but involves you taking on much more risk than you may like.
  4. On the return, when coming over, hit deep down the middle to take time away without losing margin. When slicing, go short angle or at least closer to the lines.  It is harder to run towards a low slice and get under it. Down the middle and you’re giving the server too much time to choose an angle of their choice.

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