Nadal Leads Movement to the Left in Tennis
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Published: May 26, 2005
PARIS, May 25 - It was becoming difficult to be even-handed about the game of tennis. Left-handers, once prime movers and racket shakers in the sport, were becoming as hard to find at the top as sliced forehands, checkered headbands and short men's shorts - until Rafael Nadal made his move.
Where there used to be Rod Laver, Guillermo Vilas, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles (the ground strokes were two-handed, but the serve was not), there was suddenly a glut of forehand crosscourt rallies from right-handed baseliners intent on grinding the flashy minority into the clay.
Schoolchildren in Victorian England sometimes had their left hands tied behind their backs so they would not write with them, and future tennis stars have been forced to play against instinct, too. Greats like Ken Rosewall and Margaret Court were natural left-handers who were made to use their right hands, as was Kimiko Date, the finest Japanese women's player of the past 20 years.
But after years of drought, it has finally been a verdant spring for the sinister, the Latin word for those on the unlucky left, and not because the left-handed Finnish qualifier Jarkko Nieminen bounced the ailing Andre Agassi out of the French Open in the first round on Tuesday.
The primary reason is Nadal, the Spanish 18-year-old whose whipping forehand and scrambling footwork have propelled him to No. 5 in the rankings and, after Wednesday's 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 defeat of Xavier Malisse, into the third round at Roland Garros, where he will face Richard Gasquet of France. Gasquet, a fellow 18-year-old but not a fellow left-hander, defeated Peter Wessels, 6-3, 7-6 (1), 6-1.
Until Nadal roared into the big picture, the last left-hander in the top 10 was the surly, spectacular Chilean Marcelo Rios, who dropped out of that elite group in April 2000. Although Nadal means business and trouble for his right-handed rivals, some of them, including the world's No. 1 player, Roger Federer, are actually delighted to see something different across the net. As someone who appreciates an artful winner more than a winner, Federer is all for variety, even if it costs him a title or two, or three.
"I think it's good he's a lefty," Federer said after his 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 victory over Nicolas Almagro, "because it also changes the dimensions of the rallies, the way you play. The spins come the other way, so that's going to be interesting, because we haven't seen Marat Safin or Lleyton Hewitt or Andy Roddick or Guillermo Coria play those lefties anymore. We've only really seen them playing righties, so that puts a totally different game plan in place."
Nadal is a natural right-hander who makes his millions with his left. His mentor and fellow Majorcan Carlos Moya, who won the French Open in 1998, is a natural left-hander who plays with his right.
"Nobody forced me; it was just the hand I used when I started out at 3 or 4," Moya said. "Maybe somebody just handed me the racket that way."
Nadal is not the only left-handed player on the way up. His slightly older Spanish compatriots Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco, who both lost in the first round here, are in the top 50. Donald Young of the United States, a 15-year-old with big feet and soft hands, became the youngest male to win a Grand Slam junior title when he prevailed at this year's Australian Open. And Patty Schnyder, the curly-haired Swiss player with the languid serve and maddening blend of spins, is working her way back into the top 10 for the first time in six years.
"I'm trying to use her as inspiration," said the Frenchwoman Emilie Loit, another left-hander who reached the third round on Wednesday, by defeating Amy Frazier, 6-4, 6-4. "She has a really sensational style. It's a great change from the boom-boom of the women who, if you don't mind me saying so, just swat the ball and hit it left, then right, without thinking."
Schnyder advanced with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Sandra Kloesel on Wednesday. Schnyder's game, in particular, plays neatly into the idea of the left-handed player as the right-brained, unpredictable artist - much like McEnroe and Goran Ivanisevic, the Croat who won Wimbledon in 2001, and was prone to chasing pigeons and his own demons. Schnyder's spin-heavy game features another left-handers' trait: they know their spin bothers the opposition, so they learn to pile it on.
But the traditional advantages don't stop there. It might be hard to find a practice partner. "If they're playing a righty next round, forget it," Loit said. But tennis is all about muscle memory: honing strokes and patterns of play. Facing a left-hander means breaking hard-earned habits, particularly if there are fewer left-handers than usual in the mix. Players who have spent the bulk of their competitive lives trying to get the ball to their opponent's backhand suddenly find themselves hitting the ball under pressure to their opponent's forehand.
"So many of the guys are programmed to play a certain way, and of course that's going right into Nadal's strength," said Federer's coach, Tony Roche, the second-best left-hander of his era after Laver.
But what makes Nadal particularly effective is not just the element of surprise. His forehand down the line is perhaps his best shot, meaning that he can rip open the court in a consistent hurry, leaving him plenty of room for his follow-up punch.
So why aren't there more tennis players on the left? One theory is that other sports, like golf, which were once hostile to left-handers by failing to provide them with proper equipment, have become more accommodating. And an athlete can have a longer career and earn more as a decent left-handed pitcher than as a decent left-handed tennis player.
But Thomas Muster, the Austrian left-hander who was effective enough to win the 1995 French Open, also said that the left-handed advantage in tennis is diminishing. He said that racket technology has improved returns to the point that the sliced left-handed serve in the ad-court is no longer as routinely effective. He also said that the rise in the number of quality backhands in the men's game has made it harder for left-handers to do consistent damage with their crosscourt forehands.
"In my days, there was a lot of slice on the backhands, so there was less speed coming back," Muster said. "But now, the top guys are so balanced off both sides that I don't think being a lefty is the same advantage."
Moya, for one, would disagree.
"If I had it to do over again," he said, "I'd be a lefty."