Wednesday, 18 May 2011
The Evolution of Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal has always sought to adjust his game to adapt to different conditions, and that is why he is a great champion.
This mental strength has seen him achieve things that no one believed he could, through masterfully turning around tough situations.
Physically, Rafa boasts amazing court coverage and endurance. Nothing seems to surprise him. He always strikes the ball with great power while the rotation speed has been measured as the fastest ever.
He always finds new challenges, new ways to compete: tennis, golf, football or video games, everything he touches immediately turns into a fight for victory. He does not sleep a lot, trains at full intensity and seeks hobbies to keep boredom at bay.
Every champion who has triumphed on all surfaces was forced to change his game to adjust to the conditions: tactically through working on sequences efficient on a certain surface, physically on the levels needed on that surface and mentally by learning patience, for example, or else the need to take the first opportunity to attack.
But the Spaniard has gone further than anybody before.
The main areas he has changed are his serve and forehand. Beside the strategy, the fitness or the mind, Nadal is the only one ever to have made a deep technical change to his motion in order to counteract tactical situations that were going against him.
This chameleon is always moving forward, looking to improve, making it difficult for his opponents to find an answer to him. Only his mental strength has remained stationary, so good was it to start with - he has the best ratio of wins in five-set matches of anybody still playing.
Phase 1: The Age of Innocence (until 2005)
Until his first triumph at Roland Garros, the young Nadal (pictured in 2003) was not thoughtful on technique, which he considered natural and instinctive. Nor was he or his uncle Toni worried about it; still in development, he was improving day by day, as shown by the evolution of his ranking.
This period allowed him to learn how to use his ability to become efficient. Every match played helped him learn how to behave in order to win, through solving the issues each rival brought to the table. Little by little, he also improved physically and his temper saw him achieve an out-of-this-world level of fitness.
This weapon displayed a lot of fluidity. It was the shot that allowed him to take the lead during points, enabling him to send his opponents all over the court. He found amazing angles with it and the quality of his topspin forced rivals to stand a long way from the baseline - meaning Nadal was safe from attack. His favourite shot was the short inside-out forehand which allowed him a great impact with the outcome - because of the speed generated by the motion - and also to keep an accurate position regarding the ball's rebound height. He used his right hand to prepare this motion, which ended in a big preparation loop.
Following the great tradition of Spanish tennis, the serve is considered a minor shot, merely one that starts the point. At the start of his career, young Nadal was taken into this stereotype. He did not have many aces or winners. This did not play against him much because he mostly shone on clay, with his main goal being victory at Roland Garros. He used the slice a lot in order to get to his opponent's backhand and try to get back on his own forehand. Not feeling very comfortable with the serve, Nadal picked a rather shortened and compact preparation, directly armed, in a Roddick kind of way. His lack of power came from both a lack of speed generated by the head of the racquet, which stayed too parallel with the ground, and him not achieving enough forward motion.
Phase 2: The Quest for Wimbledon (2005-2008)
Having won his first Roland Garros at 19 years of age, the young Rafa craved new achievements. His next ambition was Wimbledon - the tournament no one thought he could win. There were two main obstacles: the technical aspects of his clay game were not suited to grass, and the domination of Roger Federer on this surface, a man with all the technical and tactical weapons needed to master it.
Nadal took three years to win Wimbledon in 2008, during which time he hugely changed his technique to become more efficient. His No.1 rival Federer - who won the tournament every year between 2003 and 2007 - was playing fast, taking the ball early and used a choppy backhand a lot. This gave the Spaniard completely different angles to deal with, compared to clay.
Rafa struggled when attacked on his forehand. The big loop his arm took often made him late to the ball, so he had to play shorter and with more fragility. In order to improve his counter-attacking game, he shortened his preparation, keeping his elbow lower and speeding up the work of the racquet head - a technique often used to return an opponent's first serves. With this change he generated less speed, but better use of the speed of the ball made up for this.
He had to find more power, knowing that aces and winners are mandatory if you are to succeed on grass. Plus, if he could convince his opponents that he was unreachable on his first serve, he could place more pressure on their returns. He had to find a way to gain speed, so he increased the falling distance of the racquet - however this solution did not work. Instead of giving more freedom to his wrist in order to send the head of the racquet higher, he raised his hand and also lifted his elbow far higher than the shoulder line.
Technically this motion lacks accuracy, but it did give him more speed: a 184km/h average speed compared to 158km/h in 2003 testifies to this. Even if he remains some way off the efficiency he seeks, he reached his goal of winning Wimbledon.
Besides this technical work, Nadal tried to improve all areas of his game - and especially his backhand, adding the slice. This shot improved a lot but was still not crushing enough, sometimes putting him on the defensive afterwards. Playing doubles on a regular basis also helped him work on the shots he needs: the serve, the return and the net game. As years passed, he began to play more and more offensively.
Phase 3: Success on All Surfaces (2008-)
Far from being satisfied with his Wimbledon triumph, Nadal set new goals for himself. He had never won the US Open, but knew he would shine on all surfaces if he could find a more universal technique. The serve was still his biggest consideration as he had to bring it up to the level of the rest of his game; at Flushing Meadows, with faster, lesser rebounding courts than those in Australia, the serve can be decisive. On the forehand, he was now taking advantage of his shortened motion but also knew he had lost his ability to find angles such as the inside-out short ones.
In 2005, his preparation was higher and his loop bigger. His hand was level with his pectorals, whereas in 2011 it is lower, near the abdominal region. His elbow was also much higher in 2005, ending the head of the racquet a good 50cm higher. Also in 2005 the elbow was placed further from the body - in 2011 its position prevents the big loop.
Comparison between 2008 and 2011 clearly shows that Rafa is back to using his 2005 motion. His elbow is lower than in 2008 when his hand was high above his head. He no longer trespasses over the shoulder line.
His wrist is still 'broken' when he raises the arm, but he now succeeds in better raising the head of the racquet in order to gain speed. His toss is now higher and he strikes the ball when it hits its highest point, whereas before he was hitting it on the way down. And he is finally dealing better with the bodyweight transfer forward so he gains more power. The numbers speak for themselves: he increased his average speed on first serves from 184 to 190 between 2008 and 2010, while the number of aces follows a similar path, increasing from 210 to 310.
During all the work on his forehand, he lost some speed because it was generated by the loop. Therefore he sought another way of gaining it, improving the work of the wrist to whip the ball. Rafa's forearm now travels ahead of his hand, which is in turn ahead of the head of the racquet, perpendicular to his arm. With a whip-like action it makes up for the lost time, arriving with a lot of speed. This is what gives the shot its striking quality. A lab based in San Francisco measured that Nadal's topspin reaches a rotation of 3,200 turns per minute, compared with the 1,900 turns per minute of Agassi and the 2,700 turns per minute of Federer.