Novak Djokovic strategy coach Craig O’Shannessy explains how he’ll use statistics to help stop Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in 2018

How Djokovic will use 'moneyball' analytics to stop Federer & Nadal in 2018
Djokovic is implementing changes for 2018 (Picture: Getty)

After a six-month absence from competitive tennis, Novak Djokovic will make his long-awaited return to the ATP Tour at the start of 2018.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion suffered a sharp fall from grace after becoming just the third man to hold all four majors at once with his French Open win in 2016, and little over a year later the Serb called time on a disappointing season due to an elbow problem.

Djokovic stepped up his return by completing an intense week-long pre-season training camp in Monte Carlo at the beginning of December, where he was joined by his new-look team for the first time.

Among his staff for the 2018 season is Craig O’Shannessy – a coach who specialises in strategic analysis – who provided with exclusive insight into the ‘Moneyball’ style tennis analytics he specialises in.

How Djokovic will use 'moneyball' analytics to stop Federer & Nadal in 2018
O’Shannessy (left) will work with Agassi and Djokovic (Picture: Craig O’Shannessy)

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O’Shannessy’s own career started in journalism before he began to provide cutting-edge video analysis that has made him one of the most sought after experts in the modern game. He runs a tennis strategy website Brain Game Tennis that simplifies the best patterns of play in the sport.

Having worked behind the scenes in 2017, the Australian will now compliment the on-court work of new head coach Radek Stepanek and super coach Andre Agassi, this season.

Djokovic’s close ally Stepanek was added to his backroom team after the Czech hung up his racquet following a lengthy and successful stint on the ATP Tour, and he has assumed the role of head coach, while Agassi will continue to link up with the team at the major events.

How Djokovic will use 'moneyball' analytics to stop Federer & Nadal in 2018
Stepanek has joined Djokovic’s team as head coach (Picture: Getty)

But O’Shannessy’s more prominent role among the backroom staff highlights an aspect of the game that many other players at the top level are perhaps not yet tapping into.

O’Shannessy has been involved on the professional circuit for more than 20 years where he’s enjoyed a successful stint with 2017 US Open runner-up Kevin Anderson and famously masterminded Dustin Brown upsetting Rafael Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon 2015.

While his methods have been proven to work on the biggest stages, the theories behind them were first developed working at junior level.

‘People will refer to me as the “numbers guy” or the “stats guy” – my background is not math at all, it’s actually writing,’ he told ‘The stats side evolved naturally from trying to get my players that I was coaching to win more matches.

‘I looked at the multiple elements of coaching a player, whether it was their nutrition, whether it was their fitness, whether it was their flexibility, their strokes, their technique etc and the thing that impacted the win column more than anything was the strategy that they were playing.

How Djokovic will use 'moneyball' analytics to stop Federer & Nadal in 2018
Djokovic will hope to topple Fedal in 2018 (Picture: AFP/Getty)

‘Are they gravitating to the best strategy for their game style, build and size? And are they maximising the best strategy against each opponent? Playing against certain people you want to attack certain parts of them and there are tactics you want to avoid.

‘I would video matches and then break them down and see specific elements of the match such as how many times did they serve out wide? How many times did they make it? How many times did they win that point? How many times did the ball come back? How many times did they hit a forehand as the first shot after the serve?

‘The four big elements in a point are the serve, a return, the rallying and approaching and if you can break those big elements down into smaller elements, you can really understand the right patterns of play. That’s really how I evolved as a coach was trying to understand which specific strategies were better than the others.’

By employing O’Shannessy, Djokovic will be able to utilise his wealth of knowledge of the ATP Tour and tailor strategies for specific opponents.

How Djokovic will use 'moneyball' analytics to stop Federer & Nadal in 2018
Federer and Nadal dominated 2017 (Picture: Getty)

O’Shannessy believes that strategical shifts can prove vital in turning previously one-sided match-ups around, and pointed to Roger Federer’s vast improvement against long-time foe Nadal in 2017 as a prime example.

Many claimed Federer’s six-month absence due to a knee problem in 2016 worked in his favour to allow him to improve his backhand behind closed doors, but O’Shannessy believes a change in tactics has really helped him get the better of Nadal this season.

‘I don’t know whether he used that time off to improve his backhand – I think it was always there, he was just never committed to it,’ he added.

‘Especially, on the return of serve. Rafa was always, always pounding to Roger’s backhand return and Roger sliced his backhand return. It worked great against other opponents where he could slice it and then neutralise the point, get into a baseline rally and then look to run around his backhand.

How Djokovic will use 'moneyball' analytics to stop Federer & Nadal in 2018
Federer got the better of Nadal at the Australian Open (Picture: AFP/Getty)

‘Whereas if he slices against Nadal, Nadal will really keep him under the cosh and never let him get ahead in the point. So that situation is one of those deals that everything worked against every other player didn’t work against this one. That’s why Rafa kept pummelling him.

‘He finally had commitment to come over and block the return and it had multiple benefits. It took that time away, it shortened the point. I think in that situation it was just about stepping onto the court and committing to it. And he’s finally done that and been unstoppable.’

Federer and Nadal have dominated proceedings in Djokovic’s absence – splitting the four Grand Slams between them – and will be major obstacles facing the six-time Australian Open winner in the first major of the year in Melbourne.

So can he stop them? ‘Absolutely,’ O’Shannessy asserted.

How Djokovic will use 'moneyball' analytics to stop Federer & Nadal in 2018
Agassi and Djokovic will look to stop them in their tracks (Picture: Getty)

‘Everyone has got their favourite patterns of what they want to do. Roger is one of the greatest servers in the history of the game but there are other elements. Roger has still got to return, there are still rallies that are going on, he’s still going to miss first serves…

‘There are still times where Roger is untouchable and that’s ok, but there are still times that all opponents will get a chance to get into the service games and that’s where you want to know what part of the court is best to attack and why and what to expect will be coming back.

‘It’s the same as when I was working with Dustin Brown against Nadal. Rafa has got parts of the court where he’s not nearly as comfortable.

How Djokovic will use 'moneyball' analytics to stop Federer & Nadal in 2018
Brown stunned Nadal at Wimbledon in 2015 (Picture: Getty)

‘Dustin was able to take advantage of that and that’s why he won – 90% of that game plan had very little to do with Dustin and had to do with plugging in to what Rafa didn’t want to do and Dustin made a great job making that happen.’

So can anything stop Djokovic returning to former glories this season? ‘No. There’s nothing,’ he declared.

‘I mean, Roger came back and won the Australian Open after a long layoff so anything is possible.

How Djokovic will use 'moneyball' analytics to stop Federer & Nadal in 2018
Can Agassi and co. help Djokovic win another Australian Open title? (Picture: Popperfoto/Getty)

‘Roger was 3-1 down in that final set and Rafa had some game points to really put him away and Roger hung around, and hung around but you can pinpoint some key moments where Rafa could really have put that match away.

‘As a strategy coach, you never want to get ahead of yourself. You focus on one guy on the court, you focus on him, you try and make him play well and then you live to fight another day. Ultimately, that mentality is key at every single level of the sport.’

With O’Shannessy and the rest of his new-look team keeping his feet on the ground and taking a day-by-day approach, and with his injury worries behind him, Djokovic seems well placed to re-establish himself at the top of the tennis world in 2018.

MORE: Juan Carlos Ferrero warns Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal to expect ‘tough’ 2018

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