Welcome to Underrated Week! From May 4 through 8, TENNIS.com is focusing on the most overlooked aspects of the sport, from stats to achievements to tactics, and beyond. We're also featuring 10 players because of something they do extremely well, but which isn't their signature quality. It's a series we're calling the Underrated Traits of the Greats.
Is Rafael Nadal the most underrated volleyer in tennis? More than one pundit and commentator has answered 'yes' to that question over the years.
Instead of agreeing or disagreeing, I would respond with another question: How would we know? Nadal rarely lets us, or his opponents, see him hit a difficult volley. Is he good at digging out a wickedly dipping pass, or picking a ball off his shoe tops? Can he hold his form even when he’s forced to lunge at full stretch for a ball that rocketing toward him? Even after watching Rafa for 17 years, I can’t say for sure.
Nadal’s game is tennis, but at net he lives by the cardinal rule of every good billards player: Never force yourself to hit a tough shot. For Rafa, it’s all in the set-up—the “leave,” as a pool shark would say. That’s where the hard work is done and the advantage is gained. By the time he gets to the net, there’s usually a sitter waiting there for him to tap it or angle it into the open court.
More than with most players, Nadal’s efficiency at net is a product of his effectiveness at the baseline. He has always had a reputation as a grinder who wears his opponents down with his consistency and endurance. And those are certainly among Rafa's strengths. But he does more than just get the ball back, especially on his forehand side, and especially on grass and hard courts.
Nadal’s goal in any rally is to put himself in position to pummel a forehand into the corner. Ideally, when he gets that shot, he hits a winner with it. Just as often, though, the spin he puts on the ball forces his opponent to stretch and scramble, and the result is a weak response. Once Nadal has the advantage in a rally, he almost never gives it back. Often, it will end with his opponent desperately running from side to side, while Rafa works his way forward and delivers the finishing blow—or finishing tap—with a volley.
This isn’t to say that Nadal doesn’t have net skills. He does, and they are indeed underrated. He has one of the best overheads in the history of tennis—have you ever seen him miss one, or fail to put one away? He also has great hands. He knows when to use a touch volley, and how to hit it with margin and safety—you almost never see Rafa plunk a drop shot or drop volley in the net. When it comes to his punch volleys, he’s an expert at using angles and putting the ball in places where his opponent has no chance to track it down. When Nadal has a high volley, he typically won’t drive it deep, the way so many other players do. Instead, he’ll angle it short and direct it toward the sidelines, far from where the other player is positioned. And while Nadal doesn’t serve and volley often, he knows how to throw in a wide slice in the ad court, watch for a floating return, and charge forward to knife the volley into the open court. He used that play in the final game of his legendary win over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, and used it on match point in his win over Kevin Anderson in the 2017 US Open final.
There’s a ruthless practicality about Nadal’s net game. But, again contrary to his grinder’s reputation, he has flair. When he’s running forward to retrieve a drop shot from his opponent, he loves to give a little head fake, as if he’s going to hit the ball down the line, before flicking it crosscourt at the last second. It’s as fancy as anything that Federer, his ostensibly more artistic rival, can pull off.
When Nadal first arrived on tour, he was seen by many as one-dimensional, another Spanish dirt-baller in a long, stubbornly tenacious line of them. But you have to be good at everything to win a career Grand Slam, and Nadal has patiently expanded his game over the years. When he’s at the baseline, he shows off his physicality, but it’s when he transitions forward that he shows off all of the little details and intangibles that have made him such a versatile champion—the touch, the court sense, the decisiveness, the intelligent aggression. In all of these categories, Rafa is underrated.
More from Underrated Week
UNDERRATED TRAITS OF THE GREATS: Roger Federer—Winning ugly | Simona Halep—Boldness | Rafael Nadal—When to come to net | Sofia Kenin—Variety | Pete Sampras—Movement | Serena Williams—Plan B | Novak Djokovic—Forehand versatility | Chris Evert—Athleticism | Daniil Medvedev—Reading the room | Naomi Osaka—Return of serve