This is something I wrote as a comment at Pete Bodo’s TennisWorld blog after the 2009 Australian Open ended.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what Nadal just did this past weekend. The phrase that came to mind was that the 9 hours and 37 minutes that he was out there for the semis and the final were the most amazing feat I’ve seen by any player in any single Slam.
Now, we normally reserve such praise for an immaculate, in-the-zone performance. Something like Gonzo’s demolition of Haas two years ago, which still ranks as the most ridiculous display by someone who is possessed by the tennis gods that I’ve ever seen.
Let’s say it from the get-go: Nadal was never in that zone. Not close, really. And he really wished he was, especially in the most difficult (for him) match of the two: that semifinal against Verdasco.
I have never seen anyone play with Verdasco’s unabashed aggression off both wings for five hours plus. I’ve seen guys blast others away and end the whole affair in an hour and a half. But I’ve never seen a guy just fire rockets all over the place, from any part of the court, for five hours and fourteen minutes. In that semi, Verdasco did more than enough to earn a place in the final. He was in that “zone”. Every little part of his game was coming together. You could see the eagerness, the fearlessness in his eyes.
And yet, he lost.
I bet Nadal wished he could have hit the ball deeper that day. There must have been something wrong with his strings or the tension. He had his sticks re-strung during the match. And for someone who never, ever slams his racket to the ground, he did something that was both bizarre and comical: after a missed shot midway through the second set, he punched the stringbed in his racket. He actually punched his own stick.
Now, if the book on Nadal on hardcours is to attack him relentlessly, how did Nadal escape, on a day when he couldn’t find any depth for most of the match? He also struggled with depth in the final, but at least then he had that comfort zone, that money spot that didn’t require him to hit his forehand with depth: Federer’s high backhand. Against Verdasco, he had nothing remotely similar.
So how did he do it? By using every little tool in his arsenal to not only fend off the bombardment, but to unleash some bombs of his own.
Usually when I watch a tennis match, I act like a soccer-like fan-coach. “Hit to the backhand — hit there again!” “Don’t come to net” “Serve out wide!”, “Don’t slice to the forehand”. In the Federer-Roddick match, I had a field day with A-Rod. But in the Nadal-Verdasco semi, I had nothing.
Against Verdasco, most guys had success by letting Verdasco beat himself. You played steady, going for his often erratic backhand, and tempting his forehand to crumble. I noticed that he doesn’t really counter-punch on the forehand side: you push him out wide on that side and he’s all to eager to hit a defensive forehand slice. So I was telling Nadal, “attack the forehand!”.
And he tried, sometimes. The lack of depth was a problem, but Verdasco’s reluctance to miss was a bigger issue. If Nadal went to that spot, Verdasco would make a point of returning the shot with interest. Then I told Nadal “Come on, play the angle game. No one not named Nalbandian can beat you at the angle game”. And he tried. Only to see Verdasco hit outrageous angles back at him. So that didn’t work that well.
So, play steady and once in a while attack the backhand. Which turned into running everything down, even things he threw at Verdasco’s backhand. As the match wore on, it was clear that Nadal didn’t have access to any freebies, he couldn’t really settle on a single part of real estate. This had to be a heavyweight, all-court dogfight. A slugfest.
Now, Nadal doesn’t win that match if he hadn’t embarked years ago on the quest to become a more complete player. To be sure, he could have stuck with the things he already did well and camp out on clay. But as I wrote yesterday, back in 2006 Nadal made it clear that he wanted to start his own siege on Federer’s kingdom. And it was clear that he had to take his game to another level. Slowly but surely, he did.
Here’s a short list of things that Nadal didn’t do in 2005 and does pretty frequently these days:
- Nadal developed his biggest weapon. From being an over-the head-followthrough oddity it became one of the most feared weapons in the game. He can hit a forehand from anywhere on the court, and virtually attack from any spot. Inside-out, cross-court, down the line. You name it. And you surely don’t want to approach the net after hitting to that side. Good luck handling the rocket that’s coming to you. The other significant improvement Nadal made is to make his angled cross-court forehand as mean as possible, while still keeping the percentages up. If you watch him on clay on a day when he’s feeling particularly wicked, you’ll see how he pummels people so far wide the add court that you fear that his opponent might end up running into a billboards.
That last scenario happens when the opponent is fortunate enough to get some depth on his replies. But what makes Nadal way more dangerous than if he just stayed back is his eagerness to punish the short ball. He’s probably the best at it. No one does all the little things necessary to turn those difficult short balls into clean winners as consistently as he does. And it is here when he takes some spin off the ball and finishes the forehand across his chest. The thing is, this is not a flat forehand. It still carries a lot of spin, and it’s still a high-percentage shot.
- The backhand. If you took someone who never saw Nadal play and made that person watch last Sunday’s final, that person would have been hard pressed to name Nadal’s weak side. You could have told him that once upon a time Nadal never even considered attacking with his backhand (unless he was attempting a pass — he was always good at those) from the back of the court. It used to be that everyone and their mother started their gameplan by attacking Nadal’s backhand. Good luck these days, as he has more than one alternative to make you look dumb.
While he still rarely (in the final he hit two, in the semi I think he didn’t get a single one) attacks with his backhand down the line, his cross-court backhand has become vicious. He’s developed incredible timing on it, especially because he hits it flat (this might be the lone flat stroke in Nadal’s arsenal).
So if three years ago Nadal hit his backhand short and spinny, with no aggression to it, almost inviting you to pummel him on that side, he now can hurt you with it immediately, or at the very least, give himself a chance to hurt you properly with his main weapon. And in the past year, he’s developed a new tool:
- The slice backhand. I remember when he started using this shot a little over a year ago. It was hilarious. He was obviously not very good at it. I would even say “thank you, Nadal” when he hit one of those pathetic slices to Djokovic. The basic problem was that he hit it short and his ball didn’t skid. So it sat there, waiting to be killed. Any other player would have pulled the plug on this little project, but Nadal being Nadal, he kept at it. He kept trying to get better at it. Incredibly, his slice worked even on clay, a surface where you’re not supposed to hit slices. Then again, Nadal could probably try any shot and it would work on clay.
Still, from that sad little shot he used to hit, we arrive to those ridiculous, Federer-esque slices he threw out there at Verdasco, trying to buy himself some time, trying to disrupt Verdasco’s timing. It was just amazing to watch how good that slice backhand is these days.
- His volleying. Again, when he started improving this aspect of his game, it was clear he needed to put in the long hours. There’s a video from Queens from about 2 years ago when Nadal hits the most hilarious volley of all time. So bad he had to laugh himself.
Last Sunday, Nadal hit one of the most amazing volleys of the tournament against Federer in that pivotal third set tiebreaker. It looked classic, it looked perfect. And to think that two years ago he would have driven it to the ground is just astounding.
About the net game, I think Nadal is the one person that truly understands the point of going to the net in the 21st century. Mainly, you cannot charge the net trying to find something. Trying to dare your opponent to hit a great shot. That used to be the old wisdom: you attack the net because you have a higher percentage shot by volleying than does your opponent by hitting a perfect passing shot. Now, EVERYONE can hit perfect passing shots. Off any wing. So hitting a volley after someone hits a killer pass these days is way more difficult than hitting that same passing shot.
Nadal understands that you come to net to finish a point. Not to tempt anyone, not to dare someone to come up with something great. You come in with the point half in your pocket, so you can truly have a high-percentage shot. So you’ll rarely see Nadal get passed, and you’ll rarely see him miss a volley. He’ll get to net, but he’ll only get there when it’s absolutely right to be there. Which is the most important piece of strategy you can have.
- The Serve: It’s still not great. And this is the one item on the list that probably won’t improve that much for the rest of the way. Like Tío Toni says, this is not a natural movement for Nadal, and the serve is the one instinctive, organic part of everyone’s game. Sampras said it best himself, by not saying what exactly made his serve the best ever. He said he didn’t know. It just happened.
Nadal had to learn it, and he clearly understands what needs to be done. And his serve is very successful anyway, because it carries so much spin, and has that tricky lefty trajectory. Only two or three players force him to come up with something special on this side, and nowadays, he does.
He is using the lefty wide serve on the ad court a lot more, and he should. But he’s hitting that hard one down the line (the one used on a couple of break points against Federer) that gives him a free point more often than not, since everyone is covering for the dreaded wide serve. And he’s developed a very efficient body serve that forces people to adjust in a milisecond. This gives him either a short ball or a free point.
So while he doesn’t serve particularly hard, on a good day Nadal will place his serve really well. He’ll look for corners, he’ll surprise you most of the time. And again, this is for the times when the basic, serve-to-the-backhand strategy doesn’t work. Which is rarely.
- His return of serve: This is also an area where Nadal wasn’t really that good. He’s not an instinctive returner, and too often he used a longer swing. But slowly but surely, he was reading serves better, and he was shortening that swing. He rarely goes for winners off returns (and he can), but he’s also understood the changing times, and he’s becoming increasingly good at not missing second serve returns. And he’s getting them deeper and deeper. Which is a problem for everyone. Because if you once could serve Nadal out the court, now he rarely gives you free points. And the more he steps in for second serves, and the deeper his returns get, the more pressure he puts on other people. Which is why he leads most of the return of serve statistical categories.
- His positioning on the court. This one is the key, because it enables him to dispatch opponents quicker. And the strategy is simple: you want to stay close to the baseline so you can pounce any short balls that come your way. If you’re too far behind, the odds that you come up with a momentum-changing shot are slimmer, and you’re going to be doing way too much running. And while sometimes that’s inevitable (e.g, the Verdasco match), it’s not advisable that you’re running around like crazy in the third round, chasing down balls from someone ranked 58 spots below you.
So the kid worked on all of these things for a couple of years. He worked hard, and he worked relentlessly. Of course, it wasn’t a one-man journey: Toni Nadal might just be the greatest coach of this era. If anything, Toni is successful at keeping Nadal hungry, giving him constant reality checks. Everyone remembers how after Nadal won his first French Open, the gift his uncle gave him was a list of things he did wrong in that match. As an example of what’s more common on the ATP, Marian Vajda’s reaction to Djokovic winning last year’s Australian Open was to proclaim that Djokovic could become no.1 by the end of the year. Which of course, he didn’t.
Toni Nadal understands tennis. He understands his nephew. He understood what needed to be done, and what still needs to be done.
It was particularly touching to read Nadal’s presser after the final. If the French Open was his destiny, Wimbledon was a dream, then this Australian Open was about reaping the rewards of hard work. A symbolic prize for all those hours working on his game. For all those minutes spent on hardcourts everywhere.
And it was fitting that his 9 hours and 37 minutes in the semis and the final were more like a gruelling comprehensive grad school exam than a virtuoso performance in front of an audience. He was drilled on every little thing he learned, and on the things he already knew. He was drilled over and over again.
And he passed. Knowing that his former self wouldn’t have been able to do it. Knowing that if it weren’t for all that work leading up to that fateful weekend, he wouldn’t have done it.
And that’s why I’ll always remember those 9 hours plus as the most impressive feat I’ve ever seen on a tennis court.
Originally published at juanjosevallejo.tumblr.com.