Nadal: Evolution of a Champion

by: Peter Bodo | April 18, 2011

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by Pete Bodo

Rafael Nadal's strategy for the spring now seems pretty clear. It's the age-old BTD approach: Bludgeon Them to Death. Early in this man's career, it was not only a reasonable option, but almost a necessary one. Nadal's skills on surfaces other than clay, while good (and better even then than most people acknowledged, or were willing to admit), suggested that he make the most of his opportunities on the red clay, where he is most effective.

Nadal staked out his base territory on clay in 2005 and 2006, by the end of which he was not yet 21 but in possession of two French Open and four red-clay Masters titles. But it isn't like Nadal was ineffective on other surfaces at the onset; not by any means. By the end of 2006 he had also earned a prestigious hard-court title (Canadian Open) and a runner-up trophy from Wimbledon. The triumphs were good indicators of both his imperial ambitions and the versatility of his game, or style.

Style and game are two different things, although easily confused as interchangeable. Nadal has demonstrated through his evolution as a champ how different they really are. Nobody, but nobody, looking at his game back when Nadal first began to make his mark thought it was anything but a set of tools lethally but almost exclusively suited for clay courts.

Nadal was the "next generation" clay-courter, a player who took the concept of building a game around the forehand to levels merely hinted at by the likes of Jim Courier. He was the evil spawn of some clay-court Grendel like Alberto Berasetagui (who actually hit his atomic forehand with the back or "wrong" side of the racket face), or two-time French Open champion Sergi Bruguera, who had comparably radical strokes and played from so far behind the baseline that he needed GPS to find his chair on the changeover.

Nadal's viciously spinning ball, hit with a wickedly-torqued, wrenching swing that threatened to yank his left arm from its socket, was made for punishing opponents on red clay. By contrast, the backhand, while solid enough, looked like something out of the emergency repair kit. If an opponent somehow found his way to that wing, the two-fisted, short-backswing backhand would stop the bleeding. With help from Nadal's feet, it would get the job done—the job being, getting Nadal back into position to dictate with his forehand from way over in the backhand court.

And then there was that serve. If anything helped prejudice observers against Nadal's all-court potential, it was the careful, almost ungainly way he hit his serve. He looked (and sometimes still looks) somehow out of balance, favoring his right side. The delivery has improved considerably; it's become a lot more accurate and precise without looking any different. Nadal is better now at darts.

Nadal's service action remains the least convincing part of his game, and it's the area where this whole business about Nadal really being a right-hander might be most significant, although I can't really tell you how. Watching him sometimes, though, I could be convinced that he's really a right-hander who for some reason has to serve lefty. Nadal certainly doesn't get that big, wide-swinging ad-court slice that has always been the lefty's signature—as well as most poisonous—weapon.

Nadal's game hasn't changed very much over the last few years. To me, the biggest difference is the improvement in his backhand. His recently-developed slice is something like a 4 or 5 on a scale of 10, but when you factor in the time it buys to help Nadal get back in position, or to re-set the rally to neutral, it moves up to a 7, maybe 7.5. The improvement in the two-hander is pronounced. Nadal's ability to play the shot out of a deep crouch, often going away with his back almost to the net (I'm sure you can conjure up the image) is remarkable.

Nadal gets incredible angles with that backhand now, but what I like most is how much more wristy it is; in addition to adding sting and snap, it allows himto hit sharper angles, which improve his counter-punching abilities on those occasions when he's backed into a corner, or getting jerked around the court. Not many players can get Nadal on a string, but one of them (Novak Djokovic) is playing the best tennis of his life and another (Juan Martin del Potro) is well on the way back after that wrist injury.  Delpo's ability to dictate is unsurpassed because he can hit so such deep, penetrating groundstrokes.

As helpful as those evolutionary changes have been to Nadal, his all-around success is more a matter of his style, which is ultra-aggressive. Nadal hits fewer "rally" shots than any player in recent memory, although the most recent versions of Djokovic and del Potro come close. That's remarkable, when you consider how much he relies on topspin (which for Nadal is like a governor that keeps his engine from blowing up). Significantly, Federer is not in the company of these men in that department, except on those days when he's fully dialed in and confident. In some ways, Andy Murray and Federer are the least contemporary among the top players, with old-school elements ever-present in their games.

The results since last year's U.S. Open suggest that the very concept of the "rally" is endangered; it's all about the Big Ball now, and either ripping winners (or forcing errors through the effort), or vicious three- and four-shot combinations with the end of the point foreshadowed from the very first swing. No player who fits any standard definition of "clay-courter" could possibly survive in this environment, not at the highest level.

This helps explain why so many of the best players today are even more proficient on hard courts than on clay, where their games were developed. It's counter-intuitive, but the single most often-cited value of training on clay (developing consistency) is the one least called up or useful at the very top of the game. It's a little like the way some of the best artists are masterful at representational drawing but never do it.

Nadal is still best on clay, no doubt about it. But it's because his game is more old-school than his style. In Nadal, the benefits of aggression aren't manifested just in the way his game travels unexpectedly well from clay to hard and grass surfaces. It's part and parcel of everything he does. Consider this: Nadal and Djokovic played the same amount of tennis during this year's hard-court swing (the men played the finals at both Indian Wells and Miami); Nadal even complained that fatigue played a role in his loss to Djokovic on Key Biscayne.

Yet while Djokovic pulled out of Monte Carlo (official reason: sore knee), Nadal soldiered on. The stakes and conditions were certainly different—it's a lot easier to opt for a well-earned and thoroughly deserved rest when you've just won two Masters titles than when you've just lost in both finals. And we know all about Nadal's brilliant record at Monte Carlo, and the historic and statistical implications of its continuation.

But note that despite citing fatigue as an issue once again in the Monte Carlo final against David Ferrer, Nadal is still entered in Barcelona this week (you can check some of my further thoughts on that at my ESPN blog). I had to smile when I saw the headline at the ATP website: Nadal Not Concerned with Schedule. It calls for the sub-head: Perhaps We Shouldn't be, Either. . .

Discussing his win over Ferrer with the press, Nadal said: “During the match I was more tired than usual today. But in general it was positive. That's important because these kinds of matches, like yesterday, like today, improve your condition physically and mentally.

“It’s negative because you spent a lot of time on court, you have to run a lot on court, it’s always tough for the body. But if you talk about [what it does] mentally and physically, that can help a lot for the rest of the clay season.”

Aha. Now we’re onto something. It seems that Nadal’s marathon schedule is an aspect of training, rather than income-earning, ranking-points gathering, or even legacy-creating. I don’t think the physical conditioning to which Nadal alludes is as important as the mental tempering. In fact, it seems that Nadal is rolling the die a bit here, risking injury related to over-exertion (like that tendinitis he had in both knees back in 2009) and just plain over-use in order to reap the confidence-building rewards of that Bludgeon Them to Death philosophy.

This is the time of year when the rewards for pursuing that strategy, the one so ingrained in Nadal, are greatest. But the basic, aggressive style and mentality that makes Nadal so effective on clay pay dividends all year.

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