After learning Nadal’s return positions within the final 4 Australian Opens and evaluating them with the opposite males’s gamers who have been within the High 10 late final season, GIG decided that Nadal was 4 instances extra probably than others to face very deep to return first serves and an astonishing 10 instances extra probably than the others when returning second serves.
Nadal’s return ways are yet one more signal that the fashionable sport will not be as homogenized as its critics wish to lament. The shock is that his opponents, together with a number of the handiest servers in historical past, haven’t discovered a approach to punish him extra incessantly for the bottom he cedes.
“The model of play at the moment and at the moment’s circumstances within the sport permit him to get away with it,” stated Paul Annacone, the Tennis Channel analyst and longtime coach.
Nadal’s retreat permits him extra time to react to large serves, like these delivered by Juan Martin del Potro in final yr’s U.S. Open semifinal and by Kevin Anderson within the closing. It additionally destroys a lot of the inducement for them to go for large second serves.
However Nadal’s court docket positioning additionally opens up angles of assault for his opponents’ broad serves and creates potential alternatives for these keen to assault or enterprise to the web.
Nonetheless, he ranks constantly among the many handiest returners within the sport.
He has received a better share of first serve return factors — 34.9 p.c — than some other main participant during the last 52 weeks and ranks second within the share of second serve return factors received at 55.Three p.c, simply behind Diego Schwartzman at 55.9 p.c.
Clearly, regardless of debate concerning the tactic’s deserves even inside his personal group, the U has not stored Nadal from changing into one of many best gamers in historical past. Fairly the opposite, and although there are lingering considerations concerning the state of his proper knee heading into subsequent week’s Australian Open, right here he’s at age 31: again at No. 1.
“It’s all the time a danger to face that far again,” stated Darren Cahill, an ESPN analyst and main coach. “However it is smart for Rafa, and he’s been capable of nearly good it.”
It is smart for Nadal due to the uncommonly excessive grip change he has to make when switching between hitting his forehand and his two-handed backhand. That grip change takes valuable time, and retreating greater than six ft behind the baseline buys him that point.
“It’s most likely what, two-tenths of a second extra time, to react; to see the place the serve goes?” Cahill stated. “However it’s that quick twitch he has that permits him to maneuver and get his racket on the ball, and he has superb energy off either side.”
That’s as a result of Nadal is a pure right-hander, which provides heft to his two-handed backhand.
“If he’s taken out broad on the backhand, he makes use of quite a lot of proper arm to have the ability to muscle that ball into play,” Cahill stated. “Nobody else from that far again within the court docket can throw the ball up with that quantity of spin and provides it sufficient hold time to make it uncomfortable for the opponent to place away that first ball. It’s simply troublesome to do this.”
The discomfort for the opponent will not be solely as a result of Nadal’s heavy strokes. It comes from realizing that placing the ball previous him when he’s wholesome and hitting passing photographs with precision and aptitude stays one of many sport’s nice challenges.
“When he’s assured, actually assured and taking part in properly, and he does this on clay, too, he’ll begin the purpose from a deep place and then you definately watch the place he goes after he hits the return,” Annacone stated. “He will get up proper behind the baseline after which tries to dictate. If he stays again there after the return, that’s when he’s unconfident and just a little bit susceptible.”
Nadal’s excessive variations in return place — both tight to the baseline or far again close to the ticket holders — additionally create doubt and confusion in his opponents.
Nonetheless, a lesser participant and athlete would have paid too excessive a value for the deep positioning, and there’s nonetheless an occasional tax on the tactic: Gilles Müller, in his upset of Nadal at Wimbledon final yr, was significantly efficient in opening up attacking alternatives by serving broad to Nadal’s backhand aspect within the deuce court docket.
Roger Federer has used his personal precision serving to shift the momentum of his once-lopsided rivalry with Nadal. Final yr’s closing in Shanghai, which has one of many quickest surfaces on the ATP Tour, was a living proof. Nadal couldn’t handle to get a single break level on Federer’s serve and misplaced, 6-Four, 6-Three.
“Roger is without doubt one of the best strategic servers who has ever performed,” stated Annacone, Federer’s former coach. “You give him that house, significantly on a quick court docket, and that’s an issue. And that’s why Novak Djokovic is tougher for Roger to serve towards than Rafa, as a result of he doesn’t give him house. He’s so lengthy. He can keep up on the baseline, and if Roger doesn’t hit his targets, Novak will punish him.”
Nadal has after all punished Federer lots by way of the years and nonetheless leads 23-15 head-to-head.
However Federer’s skill to return over his backhand extra incessantly and his renewed late-career dedication to the assault have — for now — made the distinction.
So why aren’t extra gamers making Nadal endure for his returning tendencies?
“No. 1, as a result of it’s not the model of play at the moment,” Annacone stated. “There’s nearly no one aside from two or three guys who serve and volley. No. 2, as a result of Rafa is such a fantastic mover and a fantastic notion returner. In case you determine to serve and volley, watch what number of instances Rafa will get the return low, and to me that’s a heightened consciousness of the man coming in behind the serve.”
Annacone recalled that Bjorn Borg, one other nice athletic expertise with a whipping topspin forehand, additionally favored to drop significantly deep for some returns.
“Bjorn was fairly far again however not that far again,” Annacone stated. “I don’t bear in mind anybody constantly having the ability to get again to impartial from there like Rafa. When you get again there, you higher be fairly darn good with what you do with the ball to get again in place to win a degree, in any other case you’re at your opponent’s mercy.
“And that’s the place Rafa, when he’s assured, is superb. He will get it excessive and heavy and deep, which retains his opponent behind the baseline after which he will get up on the baseline and dictates together with his forehand. And that’s when Rafa goes from actually laborious to play towards to principally inconceivable to play towards.”