By far the most dramatic story of 2013 is the resurgence of Rafael Nadal from a seven month absence due to a recurring knee injury to the most dominant player on the Men’s tour in 2013. Yes there have been blips on the radar, mainly in the five week grass court season, including the surprising early exit at Wimbledon, but other than losing in the final of his first tournament coming back, Nadal has been nothing less than spectacular.
We already know he has the greatest mind in tennis: eight French Open titles makes him this most prolific clay court player in the History of Tennis. But Nadal is more than a great mind, he’s constantly adapting and improving.
In a wonderful article by Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal ‘How Nadal Became Hard-Core’ we see that Nadal’s other coach, when his Uncle Toni is not court side, Francis Roig added one of the age old strategies ‘accuracy’ into the Nadal regimen he accomplished two critical improvements: (1) use of the full court to dictate the point, and (2), a way to shorten the points.
This isn’t new. It’s one of the earliest strategies all top players learn but in the rigors of an eleven month season, where three out of four Grand Slams and the tournaments leading up to their events are fast or hard surfaces, players use what they know best and have won with throughout.
Nadal is different. When winning his first Wimbledon, he moved himself closer to the baseline, playing the ball earlier preventing a transitional attacker (who could both serve volley or come to the net at a moment’s notice from dictating play), moving Nadal deeper and wider out of the court where he’d attempt to defend from difficult positions. By moving closer to the baseline Nadal took those options away.
Instead Nadal learned how to dictate play, to hit one of his early shots to a corner or a line and then find a way to rev up his forehand and dominate the rally. This never translated to the hard courts. Nadal instead decided to play a ‘clay court’ game on a hard court surface. The problem was Nadal isn’t a light-footed player, like Federer. He pounds the court with heavy debilitating footwork which as we’ve seen season after season from 2008 until this year, created more stress on his knee.
Enter Roig. “If you cannot run, what you need is a lot more precision.”
And here, once again, Nadal has morphed a ‘clay court’ game into a transitional attacking game, coming to the net off deep penetrating groundstrokes to finish the point early; driving shots earlier in the point to the lines and corners to move his opponent sooner in the rally; and serving more aggressively to the edges of the service box to push even the best returners out of their comfort zone.
The end result, Rafael Nadal hasn’t lost a match on a hard court in 2013.
Those of you who know me and what I’ve advocated for years (blogs, podcasts, videos on YouTube), know that I’m a huge proponent of transitional offense: serve volleying, attacking short balls, driving players into the corner of the court to open up wide open spaces to finish the point with aggressive precision. Most players, particularly at the top, still are uncomfortable with the attacking, closing volley, setting up too deep in the service box and rarely making a strong move forward to close and finish on the volley. Why? Too much respect for the pass or the lob.
They must rethink that. The success of the finish comes in the success of shaping a point to move a player off the court, out of position where any defensive shot is ineffective at best. That’s transitional offense at it’s best. Quick, surprise attacks where a player is caught off guard and out of position to respond with any efficacy.
It’s good to see Rafael Nadal (as well as an aging Roger Federer) have reengineered this strategy with a modern day spin. Not only does it display dominance of the game, but precision of shotmaking. As Perrotta describes it, ‘shot making with a purpose’ but we’ve all known it since we shaped our skills as players, hitting shots to the corners and lines always opens up the court for a chance to attack. Since the 14-Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras retired the men’s game has taken on a Eurocentric baseline banger “I can out rally you” mindset.
The game is now going through another transitional phase where the greatest players in the game are finally understanding that a rocket hit to the corners rarely produces a difficult response; that allowing that player, the player on the run in the corner, to float a recovery shot to restart the point, is NOW a transitional moment to end the point.
Tonight, in the final of the Men’s Singles at the US Open, he will be tested by his arch rival, the World’s Number One player, Novak Djokovic. If their last Grand Slam encounter (at the French Open Semifinal where Nadal beat Djokovic 9-7 in the fifth) is any indication of this one, this is going to be a blockbuster.
And let’s see if the new or the old Rafael Nadal comes to the court. My thoughts are we’re in for a surprise.
Rafael Nadal has just won his 13th Grand Slam Singles Title at the #USOpen beating the World’s Number 1 player, Novak Djokovic, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Only 120 Points separate the current World’s Number 1 from the surging Rafael Nadal. Both players are 3000 points ahead of No #3 Andy Murray and 6000 points ahead of #7 Roger Federer.