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.
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.