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His serve is weak (for the most part of his career), his volleys aren’t very good, his backhand doesn’t generate many winners, his forehand drops deep far too often and he can be very injury prone, but Rafael Nadal is, in my view, the most difficult player to beat in the world. Yet from the first sentence, you would be shocked as to why he is so difficult to beat. This article aims to explain why so many “choke” against Nadal, why he’s acclaimed to be so “mentally strong” when that’s part illusion, tactics and footwork Nadal uses in matches and how, you, can adopt the tactics and mentality Nadal uses, to further your game and also, how Nadal is misunderstood in his style of play by many tennis fans and commentators.

And finally, this article explains as to why Nadal could (and in reality, should) be the greatest of all time – something that many fans think is “unthinkable” with Federer as the current leader of all time greatest male players.

Forehand

Nadal’s forehand averages around 3200 rpm (revolutions per minute) from a normal baseline stroke (his forehand generating much more RPM than his backhand).  He can generate extreme topspin on a ball; this requires use of the body to almost use your body to “push” the ball, often Blake and Nadal do this, where as someone like Federer doesn’t use as much of his body, rather being reliant more on footwork. Nadal’s forehand and strong muscular core build allow him to hit the ball deep with security knowing that he won’t make a forehand error due to his shot being very high percentage (in not making an error), generally the more topspin you hit the less chance you have of making an error due to the shot looping over the net, as opposed to a flat drive, which is lower – this simple to explain.

Mentally Strong

Yet the subtle reasoning as to why Nadal is acclaimed to be “mentally strong” is partly explained here; when there is a big point in a match, say 5-5 in the a tie-breaker where the next point is crucial for the set, Nadal’s high percentage shot, his forehand, can be hit time and time again without making an error; usually he hits cross-court, to the opponent’s backhand, most opponents in the ATP Tour seem to have weaker backhands than forehands, and the backhand in general is a flatter shot than the forehand for anyone – try getting topspin on a backhand like Nadal gets on a forehand, and you’ll find it’s impossible. Thus by continuously hitting a cross-court forehand loop to an opponent’s backhand, this partly explains why Nadal does so well at big points: he does something that makes him hit no errors.

Further-more, this also explains why some players are said to “choke” against Nadal. He puts pressure on them to generate a winner or a forced error from Nadal, and the sheer pressure to do so; when so much is at stake, causes opponents to either make wild unforced errors (think Federer in the Hamburg Masters 2008 Final), or as is much more common, for opponents who have almost bean Nadal by being aggressive, to suddenly become very defensive, and we can see a first-class demonstration by the “choke” Almagro puts up in the video below, numerous times in his numerous match points he has chances to go to the net and finish the point, but he doesn’t and as a result, loses his game and the match.

Tactics

Nadal concentrates very well at match points when the match is close; by hitting the high percentage-shot (his forehand) time and time again in a rally, these 3 things happen:

1. The rally extends, and due to Nadal being the fittest player (or one of) in the men’s tour, this benefits him.
2. The opponent has to continue hitting aggressive shots, which have a higher percentage of generating an error than Nadal’s forehand shot.
3. The third is perhaps the most subtle, but what starts happening is Nadal starts “glueing” the opponent with his forehand, the image below shows it very well:

^ Initially Nadal starts by hitting a deep cross-court backhand, in this example, to Federer’s backhand.

^ Federer is now forced to hit a shoulder-high backhand from a defensive position; the Swiss player’s backhand is competent to handle these high topspin forehands from Nadal, but not all player’s have the luxury Federer has with his backhand on clay, nevertheless, Nadal now moves to the middle of the court and moves up the court to be more aggressive as he is expecting a defensive shot from Federer.

^ Nadal now hits an inside-in forehand to Federer’s backhand, but he is again glueing Federer to the little white box, and the next image shows why he does this.

^ Federer hits a defensive shot, Nadal is now already at the middle of the court and has essentially two options -> hit a cross-court forehand to wrong-foot the opponent (A) or hit inside-out (B) for the winner, either one is a percentage shot (B is slightly more riskier than A, of course) due to Nadal’s extreme topsin on his forehand, but what these images aim to show is how Nadal has glued Federer to the left-side of the tennis court, this is a very good tactic that Nadal uses against all opponents.

Alternatively, you can watch this rally take place in the first 10 seconds on this YouTube video.

These 3 points explain why he’s seen as being mentally strong and why players choke against him – (1) Nadal feels free to get into long rallies by hitting high percentage shots, which doesn’t result in too many errors from the Spaniard; not making errors in crucial moments seems to be the definition of being “mentally strong”, (2) the opponents have to continuously hit aggressive shots against Nadal and often they make mistakes, labelling them as “chokers” and the third point shows how Nadal can be an intelligent player -> by glueing his opponent out-wide to negate any chance of the opponent hitting a winner.

Greatest… Of All Time?

It is not too abstract to think of Nadal possibly being the greatest of all time, this article was originally scheduled for a February 2010 release, however since then Nadal has won 3 Grand Slams, and as a result, is inching closer and closer to Federer, who is clearly past his prime.

Nadal is already the best at some things – he has the most Masters shields (at 18), is probably the greatest clay-court ever – not even Borg has matched Nadal’s dominance on Monte Carlo, but elusively, having the most Slams is what we attribute to being the greatest.

Nadal is 24 years of age -> assuming by the age of 30 he is comfortably out of his prime, he has 5 years of 4 tries  (1 try = 1 Major, and there are of course, 4 in a year) and 1 year of 3 tries, letting him have 23 tries to catch up to Federer’s 16 and to possibly overtake him.

Further more, with the decline of Federer, Murray’s inconsistent form and Djokovic’s brilliant rise, we will just have to see what happens for Nadal.

This explains why it can be difficult to move Nadal out of position and how it is difficult to beat him when he applies this tactic, as the opponent (Federer in this case) has to hit a risky shot (say a backhand down the line) to not allow Nadal to finish the point off.

Serve

You only need to look at video showing Nadal in 2005 and Nadal in 2010 to see how much his serve has improved.

Serve in 2005:

Serve in 2010:

An improvement in his serve has made it harder for him to be beaten. He gets more free points and at crucial times in a match, say serving at 5-6 30-30 in a set, doesn’t have to rely on a baseline rally to win the point, he can try with a big first serve, although his serve still is inconsistent and at times completely disappears, it is an improvement anything he has shown before summer 2010. The US Open 2010 is the tournament where his serve started to increase.

Nadal Misunderstood

Nadal is partly misunderstood by some, it is unfair to label Nadal as an attacking baseliner or defensive baseliner – he is neither, rather he is a modern baseliner, a new type of player only around in the last 10/20 years, as this article explains.

It’s a common myth Nadal has problems playing on a fast surface, especially a fast hard-court, this is nonsense; winning the US Open proves that wrong, with a better serve and a lighter schedule, Nadal should be able to perform better on hard-courts. Further-more, a fast hard-court does give Nadal some advantages, assuming his opponent is not a Federer or a Djokovic:

1. His forehand becomes more difficult to attack as the faster court naturally makes his shots a little faster.

2. His newer, slightly more powerful serve can come into use, the court being fast allows for the first serve to create more service winners and service aces.

These are all reasons as to why Nadal is so difficult to beat.

Competitors (and Attitude)

It appears that Djokovic will be Nadal’s main competitor this year and for many years to come; the Serbian defeated Nadal twice in the States for two Masters Shields, on clay, particularly on the clay-courts of Madrid, Djokovic has come very close to defeating Nadal, so we will see this year, if they do meet, how Djokovic can deal with Nadal.

Federer is the natural rival, but it is clear to see Federer is out of his prime, and has been inconsistent for a while; will Federer take Nadal apart TMC 2007 Semi Final style or will he go into error-mode Miami 2011 Semi Final style? We will only know if they face each other again.

Other competitors include Ferrer (on clay and hard court), Murray (on hard-court), Soderling, Del Potro and Davydenko (who has a positive head to head against Nadal), the problem with these competitors is that they all have glaring weaknesses; Ferrer doesn’t have a huge first serve to win him cheap points, Murray’s inconsistent form and forehand let him down, Soderling’s “mental” ability and consistency have to be perfect to defeat Nadal, the same for Del Potro, and Davydenko seems to have lost consistency.

All of his main competitors, apart from Djokovic, have glaring weaknesses, that a modern baseliner, such as Nadal, who plays a reactive-style, can adapt to. This is a further reason as to why he is so difficult to beat.

Further-more, Nadal being taken to five sets at Wimbledon 2010 by Petzchner and Haase, who both played very aggressive matches, with almost a carefree attitude, yet his main competitors (Ferrer in clay-court finals, Murray at Wimbledon semi final, Djokovic at Us Open final), all seem to be held back by either added pressure, tiredness from playing 5/6 matches in less than 2 weeks, perhaps another reason is due to human nature; we perform so well when there is no pressure and we do not expect much, but as expectations go up, as does the idea of “choking” and not performing to your most efficient self.

Nadal, of course, is no exception to this – the bagel he received in the Wimbledon 2006 final by Federer was down to Nadal being very, very pragmatic, yet Nadal has experience of playing the big events and can play his best “game” in a semi final, or a final, with the pressure added on, similar to how Sampras and Federer have done, which correlates to a mentality of a champion, which makes him very, very difficult to beat.

Rhythm

Nadal doesn’t give opponents rhythm by taking a long-time between first and second serves, some dislike the perceived gamesmanship but on the other hand it gives opponents time to catch their breath back after a long rally and regain some thought about the next point.

By taking a long-time in preparation between points, it doesn’t give opponents the “feel” of having control of a baseline rally and thus they usually make more unforced errors against Nadal than most opponents. This is the same case with Djokovic, who takes even longer between points.

Strategy Required

Many opponents have tried to beat Nadal using strategies that don’t work well against the Spaniard:

1. Getting into long rallies often in a match against Nadal (this is inefficient due to Nadal’s topspin forehand being such a percentage shot, yet it doesn’t necessarily land deep due to the huge topspin), getting into long rallies with one of the fittest guys requires huge fitness, a great technique which doesn’t break down and huge determination. Shortening the points down makes it easier for you.

2. Not going to the net (to negate Nadal with just a pure baseline rally is impossible; and it makes good sense as to finish him off from just the baseline you have to hit a winner usually 80% of the time from the back of the court, Nadal can return shots that against many other players would be mental because of his determination and great agility. Nadal will start becoming comfortable in baseline rallies, it’s fundamental to go to the net to end points quickly.

Isner did this at Roland Garros 2011 – expecting Isner to take Nadal to 5 sets on clay, let alone Roland Garros seems ludicrious; but it’s a sign of how reactive tennis can fail when faced with a player who offers a creative strategy (Isner is not your usual clay-court player).

3. Avoid the forehand. Pepper the backhand wing and hit to the forehand once or twice in a rally makes sense, Djokovic’s 4 wins against Nadal this year shows how well the Serbian is targeting Nadal’s backhand and causing him to lose his court position by forcing him to hit backhand shots time after time which usually land deep; exposing Nadal to be forced to move into a defensive position to return the shot.

Backhand Specialists

Nalbandian, Djokovic, Murray, Youzhny, are players who’s backhand is stronger than their forehand, they have all at one point “destroyed” Nadal – Nalbandian bagelled him in a Masters final, Youzhny beat him 6-1 6-0, Murray has bagelled him and Djokovic has beaten him 4 times in 2011. The point is Nadal’s natural forehand is curved to go to a right handed opponent’s backhand, logically if their backhand is their stronger shot, they do well against Nadal.

As most players in the ATP tour (unlike the WTA tour) are more effective with their forehand, under and out of pressure it is a more preferred shot to generate winners (one of Djokovic’s largest improvement in 2011 is his forehand down the line), thus their backhand wing is usually weaker, most players in the ATP tour are also right handed, again, it makes sense that Nadal will target their weaker wing in a match, making him more difficult to beat than most players.

Another note, that rarely anyone points out, is the grip Nadal uses on his backhand. The modern two-handed backhand can either be two-handed or a one hander with one hand just “supporting” it, they seem like the same thing, but Nadal’s backhand is of the second category, he uses a knuckle grip on his supporting hand (right hand), making his two handed backhand more fluid than most usual two handed backhands, and more like a one-hander, this explains why he generates so many winners with his backhand cross-court but rarely down-the-line; the natural shot on his backhand is cross-court due to his grip (his backhand is very similar to Agassi’s), this also explains why it’s very hard to beat him; even his weaker wing can be very dangerous.

(This article was originally due for a January 2011 post, where Nadal was number 1 and had not lost to Djokovic 4 times and almost lost to Isner at RG 2011 – but the Spaniard is still a very difficult player to beat)

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One Comment

  1. Great analysis!


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Nadal gave his maximum effort to take the first set and in doing so, took a physical toll on him and his ability to play later on in the match. Rosol was playing well but as he said himself , he was in a trance and had no problem about worrying what would happen later on if he immediately exerted maximum effort: his big serves would give him free points which would allow him to recoup the mental energy required to win rallies against Nadal, which is difficult to do so, as explained by the article here. […]

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