The Rafa Rules
Posted 05/04/2009 @ 6 :50 PM
If Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic isn’t the game’s greatest rivalry, or even a rivalry at all by the standard definition of the word—Nadal currently leads their head-to-head 13-4—this spring it has certainly become the tour’s most absorbing adversarial relationship. The length, breadth, diversity, quality, and even the sound of their rallies; the companionable but full-blooded way they square off against each other; the sight of Nadal’s tolerant smile as Djokovic imitated his most famous and embarrassing on-court mannerism during the trophy ceremony in Rome: These guys were made to play each other. While they haven’t scaled the heights together the way Nadal and Federer have, the Spaniard and the Serb produce more consistently spectacular points. The lack of win-or-die tension in most of their matches to this point—they’ve yet to play a major final—keep both of them loose and swinging from the heels. No one plays more watchable tennis.
Beyond the rallies themselves, what struck me on Sunday was how these two also have come to define a new code of sportsmanship among the men. When Nadal arrived on tour, his previously unseen repertoire of flying fist-pumps rubbed some players and fans the wrong way. They inspired Andy Roddick to play the most bloodthirsty match of his career and demolish him in a night match at the U.S. Open in 2004. Longtime fans schooled in the game’s classic Aussie virtues thought the kid was a cheesy showboat who tried to agitate his opponents by celebrating their errors. After getting to know Nadal a little better, most of us have come to realize that his exhortations are just that: self-directed, self-generated energy boosts, reminders to himself to keep his desire to win, rather than his anxiety about losing, uppermost in his mind.
It’s worked, and it’s spawned two very prominent young imitators in Djokovic and Andy Murray. While those guys allow their frustration to surface more often than Nadal, they’ve also come to see the value of creating a rousing moment of positive emotion after a winning point, rather than just putting their heads down and silently preparing for the next point. In their best matches, Nadal and Djokovic trade full-throated roars, chest slaps, and leaping first-pumps, and neither takes offense. You might prefer the old WASP code of reserved, gentlemanly humility—“act like you’ve been there before”—or you might prefer the pensively concentrated way that Sampras and Federer make their way through a match. I like to see the emotion, personally. What I like even more is the way that, unlike the days of McEnroe and Connors, that emotion is now channeled inside the sport’s traditional definitions of sportsmanship. There’s nothing ugly or antagonistic about what Nadal or Djokovic do. When they aren’t slapping themselves in the chest, they’re apologizing to each other for net cords, mishits, and pretty much anything else out of the ordinary that happens. Yesterday, Djokovic put his hand up to Nadal to say he was sorry for grunting too long after he hit a backhand. This kind of back and forth, both the fiery and the polite, is a timely and refreshing update in the way tennis is conducted. You no longer have to be an Australian from the 1950s to know how to play the game properly.
As far as yesterday’s match, I didn’t see anything to make me think Djokovic is any closer to solving the eternal riddle of Nadal on clay. He did break the Spaniard twice when he was serving for the first set, but when it was really up for grabs, in the tiebreaker, it was Djokovic who broke down. Nadal, at the most basic level, forces Djokovic to hit his favorite shots, the down-the-line forehand and backhand, from a little wider, a little deeper, and a little out of his strike zone. Djokovic is right to keep going for these shots. The alternative is to keep rallying crosscourt with Nadal, a suicide mission if there ever was one. And the Serb can hit those high-risk shots for winners. He just hasn’t shown that he can hit them for winners for two full sets. Let alone three.
You’ve heard me mention the last few weeks that it’s been a struggle to find new ways to talk about Nadal. So let me reach back and repackage a few old observations of mine about what he does well, most of which haven’t appeared here. We spend a lot of time talking about the guy's grit and desire and cussedness and even his appearance—I’ve brought his eyebrows into the discussion and Pete Bodo spent a post talking about his sleeves. Pete lamented that Rafa’s new look had changed him from an intimidating muscle car to a safe and conventional Volvo. To which I can only say that every Saturday as a kid I used to see a doctor who lived up the hill from us burn down our street at twice the speed limit in his sharp-featured, dark-green, Modish, mid-60s Volvo sedan. I've never thought that cars came any cooler than that.
Anyway, the point is that we don’t read a lot of specifics about what the No. 1 player in the world does tactically and technically to separate himself from the pack. So for those of you like me who are dusting off their racquets and checking to see if the nets are up yet, here are six lessons from the best to start the playing season.
Early in his career, Nadal’s serve was a liability. He used a stiff, abbreviated motion that produced little pace or bite. He’s tinkered with his delivery in the years since and upped its velocity. More important, his limited ability to produce 130-m.p.h. bombs has forced him to develop two other serving strengths: accuracy and the element of surprise. We know that Nadal takes his time setting up to serve. Part of this may stem from the fact that he can’t step to the line and count on an ace. He relies on placement and variety, which need to be thought out.
The result is that Nadal hits to more targets with regularity than his opponents. Where most players either go wide, into the body, or down the T, Nadal aims for more specific spots. He may go down the T three straight times, but rather than mixing it up by going wide on the next one, he’ll mix it up by aiming 2 feet inside the T, at his opponent’s hip, and with a little extra pace. The same goes when he serves wide in the ad court. Nadal’s accuracy makes it difficult for his opponents to guess where the ball is going.
In last year’s French Open final, Nadal served virtually every ball to Federer’s backhand. In the Wimbledon final, he changed spots much more often. Nadal doesn’t use variety for its own sake; he’s happy spinning the ball into his opponent’s backhand every time, if that’s what’s working. One advantage to this tactic is that late in a match it allows him to ambush his opponent on a crucial point in the ad court by firing a flat ball down the T.
Unfortunately, I can only point out the tactic. You have to learn to hit those targets yourself.
Lessons: (1) Even without natural power on your serve, you can be just as effective by concentrating on accuracy and hitting very specific targets. (2) Don't be afraid to be predictable with it; make your opponent prove he can handle a certain serve before you decide to mix it up. Variety is never an end in itself.
As with the serve, Nadal’s return doesn’t appear to be one of his strengths at first glance. He’s often forced to take his second hand off his backhand and slice back a high floater, which immediately puts him on the defensive. But again, Nadal makes up for that weakness with his return tactics
Nowhere was this more apparent than in his second-round match at Wimbledon in 2008 against Ernests Gulbis. Nadal lost the first set 7-5 in large part because of Gulbis’ ability to consistently fire first serves in the 120-–130-m.p.h. range. At the start of the second set, Nadal took a couple of big steps backward, giving himself an extra millisecond to react on his return. He won the next three sets. Afterward, Gulbis said he had been thrown off by a change in Nadal’s tactics, but couldn’t figure out what the Spaniard was doing differently.
And unlike, say, James Blake, you’ll almost never see Nadal go for an outright winner on his return. He knows that, with few players following their serves to the net, he can be just as offensive, and much safer, hitting a high topspin forehand into his opponent’s backhand side and working his way into the point from there.
Lessons: (1) Always evaluate your return position—if nothing else, this will keep your mind working, and not worrying—and don’t be afraid to change it mid-match. (2) Never try for an outright winner on your return. Start by getting the ball back in play to your opponent's weaker side. The goal should be to neutralize the serve and work to create a higher-percentage shot before you pull the trigger.
Nadal is no net-rusher in singles, which may come as a surprise to anyone who has seen him play doubles. There he puts his aggressive instincts on display, relishing the close-range volley battles that doubles produces.
But those instincts still serve him well in singles. Nadal typically comes to the net after hitting a strong approach and getting his opponent on the run. This allows him to take most of his volleys from an offensive position and above net level. The key for him is to put the ball away immediately and not let his opponent get a crack at a pass. Nadal takes care of this in two ways. First, he keeps his volley stroke extraordinarily simple; rather than a “punch,” which is what a player is taught to think when he hits a volley, Nadal, particularly on his forehand side, pares it down even more. He essentially taps the ball into the open court.
Nadal brings his racquet all the way up, until it’s almost perpendicular with the surface, so he can hit down on the ball. He knows he’s not a power volleyer and that if he’s at the net, his opponent is typically out of position, so he concentrates on using sharp, short angles that keep the ball out of the others guy’s reach.
Lessons: (1) Think control, rather than pace, on your volleys. (2) Keep your take-back as short as possible. (3) Use sharp angles whenever you can to keep your opponent from getting a second or third look at a pass.
One reason Nadal won Wimbledon last year was his improved backhand. He flattened it out and used it as a weapon. For the most part, though, it remains a rally shot, one that helps him set up his vaunted forehand. Still, as time has gone on, Nadal, with his usual tinkering, has found ways to throw off his opponents by changing spin, speed, and depth with his backhand.
“It’s tough,” Sam Querrey said after losing to Nadal at the U.S. Open last fall, “because he gives you that [backhand] chip and he almost tempts you to come in. . . . He’s kind of just edging you on a little bit. It’s tough to deal with.” Querrey was referring to how Nadal takes the air out of a hard-hit ball by gently slicing it back in the vicinity of the service line. It forces his opponent to deal with a new spin and hit up on the ball, as well as making him hesitate before deciding whether to come in or not. Nadal knows he’s good enough to track down nearly any approach, and if it isn’t perfect, to send back a passing shot.
Lessons: (1) Be willing to mix up not only the direction of your ground strokes—i.e., crosscourt or down the line—but also their depth. (2) A low, short slice may not be an aggressive play, but it’s an uncomfortable shot for your opponent to deal with.
5. Drop Shot
For a bruiser, Nadal has a first-class touch game. He has great hands at net and on drop shots, but it’s the way he uses his touch game that makes it so consistent and effective.
Nadal has two types of drop shots. The first is a change of pace that comes in the middle of a rally. He’ll slice severely under his backhand and land the ball short, but not because he thinks he can win the point outright with it. Instead, he gives it plenty of clearance over the net and follows it forward. His opponent is forced to hit up on the ball and Nadal is there to intercept it with a volley into the open court.
Nadal uses a different type of drop shot when he has the advantage in a rally and is hitting from well inside the baseline. On those occasions, he’ll often get in position for a forehand, come under it at the last second, and drop it without too much spin into the center of the service box for a winner.
As with his serve, return, and volley, the key to Nadal’s drop shot is its safety. Yes, he has great touch, but the other reason he rarely misses this shot is that, first and foremost, he makes sure the ball clears the net. Unlike Andy Murray, who in the past has gone to the drop-shot well too often, Nadal tries to win a point with his drop only when he can do it without having to make the shot a spectacular one.
Lessons: (1) The first step to hitting an effective drop shot is clearing the net. (2) If you have your opponent scrambling, follow your drop shot all the way in so you can cut off his floating reply. (3) Only try to win a point outright with a drop shot when you don’t have to be spectacular with it.
6. Mind Game
We’ve heard and read a lot about Nadal’s mental strengths. But last week at work TENNIS Magazine’s editor, James Martin, and I watched him celebrate after winning an early round match in Rome—he looked like he couldn’t possibly have been any happier. We agreed that we’d never seen any player show so much so joy in winning with such regularity. This outlook must contribute to Nadal's ability to keep winning match after match and tournament after tournament on clay. He never lets winning feel routine, like a job. He rewards himself with a little reveling, no matter who he’s beaten or what round it is.
Whether Nadal thinks of it this way or not, his post-match revelry is another reminder to himself of why he’s out there. As I said before here, his fist-pumps and vamoses are a way of keeping his desire to win tangible—something he can always feel—and aspirational, rather than a given. Note that he doesn't just do this after breaking serve or drilling an impossible winner. At one point against Djokovic, Nadal was down 15-30 on his serve, and a tiny momentum shift toward his opponent seemed possible. Nadal won the next point with a service winner. When Djokovic's return landed wide, the Spaniard let out a short, scratchy, but easily audible vamos, while adding a truncated but determined fist-pump. Nadal hadn't just won a point, he'd made that point seem important to everyone in the arena, including himself and his opponent. He eventually held.
Nadal approaches each match as if winning it is a new goal line to cross, rather than something to be afraid of losing. In this sense, he’s like Michael Jordan, who set out to prove himself again every day. But Nadal's ambition isn’t as hard-edged as Jordan’s. Rafa doesn’t want to embarrass his opponent (unless, perhaps, his name is Soderling); he wants more than anything to feel that addictive sense of joy and relief that we all feel every time we win a tennis match. Allowing himself to soak that feeling in for a second gives him one more reason to try his absolute best to make it happen. I said earlier that the old-school way to win has always been to act like you’ve been there before. Nadal has successfully turned that on its head. He wins by acting like he’s never been there before.