Nadal’s cru­cial weaponry

For all his dom­i­nance on clay, it's been four years since Rafael Nadal won a ma­jor out­side of the French Open. With the US Open be­gin­ning on Tues­day, Char­lie Ec­cle­stone looks at how the Spa­niard can adapt and win.

Herald on Sunday - - SPORT -

Hit more back­hands

On the slower, high-bounc­ing clay courts, Nadal is able to run around his back­hand and un­load on the fore­hand al­most at will. With the courts quicker and the bounce much lower at the US Open — where Nadal has not gone beyond the fourth round since 2013 — this tac­tic is far less read­ily avail­able to him.

As a con­se­quence, Nadal has to take the ball ear­lier with the dou­ble­handed back­hand, and this has caused him prob­lems in the past. The par­a­digm for Nadal on how to play ef­fec­tively in this way is the 2013 US Open fi­nal, when he be­fud­dled No­vak Djokovic by not play­ing in­side-out fore­hands, and tak­ing the back­hand so early, he was al­most hit­ting some as base­line half-vol­leys.

Nadal's back­hand is much im­proved since then — as he demon­strated at Roland Gar­ros in June — so he should be con­fi­dent of be­ing able to re­de­ploy this strat­egy.

Go for more on the serve

A big part of Nadal's re­nais­sance this year has been the im­prove­ments he has made on his serve. His first serve points won per­cent­age is up to 74 per cent in 2017, and he is av­er­ag­ing 0.3 aces per ser­vice game this year com­pared with 0.21 last.

To pros­per on the slicker New York hard courts, Nadal can­not rely on the medium-paced slider out wide on the ad court.

There's more mar­gin for er­ror on clay courts where the awk­ward bounce will usu­ally take that sort of serve away from the re­turner's hit­ting zone, but on the truer-bounc­ing Flush­ing Mead­ows sur­face, the ball will land right in the slot for the re­turner if it is not hit wide enough and with suf­fi­cient side-spin.

As he did ef­fec­tively at the Aus­tralian Open in Jan­uary, Nadal needs more va­ri­ety and speed to pick up cheap points on his serve. His body is not as durable as it once was, and he can­not rely on grind­ing out his ser­vice games with long ral­lies as he once did.

Get to the net

Nadal's net game has im­proved so much that he is now one of the most ac­com­plished volley­ers on the ATP Tour. He is rock-solid hit­ting over­heads, and his Olympic gold medal in last year's men's dou­bles un­der­lined his so­lid­ity hit­ting both fore­hand and back­hand vol­leys.

Af­ter win­ning Wim­ble­don last month, Roger Fed­erer lamented the lack of skilled volley­ers com­ing through in the men's game, and ad­mit­ted that he is re­lieved when he plays op­po­nents who he knows have no in­ten­tion of go­ing to the net.

Should he meet Nadal, the Spa­niard could use that nugget of in­for­ma­tion to his ad­van­tage and try a few sneak at­tacks to un­set­tle Fed­erer.

It's worth re­mem­ber­ing as well that for all Nadal's base­line prow­ess, he won only 52 per cent of points from the back of the court dur­ing Jan­uary's Aus­tralian Open, where he reached the fi­nal.

The base­line is not al­ways the sanc­tu­ary it is made out to be, even for Nadal.

Speed up fore­hand kill

Nadal's game on clay is like a boa con­stric­tor grad­u­ally stran­gling the life out of his prey.

The world No 1 pep­pers his op­po­nent's back­hand side with a slew of top­spin fore­hands, and then moves in for the kill down the line once he has ma­neu­vered his op­po­nent out of po­si­tion. In his first five matches at this year's French Open, 72 per cent of Nadal's fore­hand win­ners were aimed down the line at the fore­hand of his op­po­nent, who had been dragged out of po­si­tion wide on the ad court.

At Flush­ing Mead­ows, Nadal will have to adapt a less me­thod­i­cal ap­proach be­cause the heavy top­spin he em­ploys on clay is less dev­as­tat­ing to his op­po­nents on the lower bounc­ing hard courts.

The risk Nadal runs with heavy top-spinned but in­vari­ably slower fore­hands to his op­po­nents on a quicker court is that they can quickly get him on the back foot with a pacy — if low-per­cent­age — strike from the base­line.

Nadal loves the con­trol of the death by a thou­sand top­spin fore­hands tac­tic, but as Lu­cas Pouille showed at last year's US Open, he is vul­ner­a­ble to a shot­maker who is pre­pared to go for broke from the back of the court.

It does not re­quire a ma­jor rein­ven­tion, but Nadal will have to go for a lit­tle more pace a lit­tle sooner on the fore­hand side to com­bat the threat of an op­po­nent back­ing him­self to over­power the Spa­niard.


Rafael Nadal has im­proved his back­hand, serve and skill at the net.

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