Nadal’s Style and 2020 in Brief

Nadal’s Style

Nadal as current #1 in the world is coming-off a massive campaign, 2019 proving that, once again, he is a consummate winner, one of the best at taking advantage of life’s opportunities. His French Open legacy is exhibit A for such a claim.

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Imagine you really have only one particular surface on which you truly flourish (no one can debate this with respect to Nadal’s preference for clay), so you make sure to never lose at the major that’s played on that surface. His 12 titles is absurd and anyone aware of tennis history or sports history, for that matter, recognizes this absurd dominance. Pete Sampras was the absolute grass king in his day, the clear superior grass court player with a winning attitude similar to Nadal’s. Sampras was one other-worldly run by Richard Krajicek from winning 8 Wimbledon titles in-a-row (Rafa’s current Roland Garros title streak is at 8). Even Pete had an “off” year on his favorite surface. Of course, Rafa’s on his second streak, so this is simply well beyond the grass legacy of Sampras. The point is not to compare their dominance, but to point-out that people have off years, run-into a hot opponent or two.

The clay numbers absolutely inflate Rafa’s statistical argument.

One of the points I’m making here is with regards to his style, which is something a reader asked me to clarify, following an earlier comment (though this is a theme you could probably track throughout my tennis blog) suggesting that the Spaniard’s clutch gene is more impressive, to me, than is his style. Writing that last sentence moves me and I would think many tennis aficionados to double-down on that statement: Rafa’s winning ways, his competitive fire and ability to rise to the occasion, is more impressive than is his style and technique.

So, what do I mean by his style and technique?

Style: a particular manner or technique by which something is done.

  1. Let me say first of all that anyone who champions Rafa’s tennis style or technique will likely not be fully convinced by my explanation here.
  2. And let me say, furthermore, that because I have talked about this quite a bit through the years (one should be able to at least infer my commentary specific to the shortcomings of his style/technique), I don’t plan to write here an exhaustive analysis.

I do not believe my position on Rafa’s style is overly subjective (or controversial) at all, that most agree with me, can see the trouble he has when he’s asked to do certain things on a tennis court that don’t facilitate his style.

I’m going to cheat a bit and say that a very recent bit of tennis from Rafa, at the ATP Cup, indicates a small, yet convincing sample of the short-comings inherent in Rafa’s style and technique.

Sure, we come back to surface. The hard court exposes Rafa’s style and technique. The quicker, lower-bounce characteristics of hard courts give Rafa all sorts of trouble. Why? First of all, his more defensive approach to the point means he relies on a retriever mentality, which starts with his philosophy on tennis. His reliance on this more defensive and disciplined approach to the point, on hitting only to a one-hander’s BH, for instance, over and over again, on keeping the point alive first and foremost, at all costs, slowly strangling his opponent under the guise of unforced errors, clearly illustrates what he likes to do on the court. His opponent often succumbs to this more patient, disciplined, defensive and, in the end, robotic style. It’s oppressive for his opponent.

Anyone watching tennis over the past fifteen years should understand this.

On hard courts, as we saw in the recent ATP Cup, he was simply less efficient. For example, he’s forced to drop too far behind the BL on the ROS (this is not insightful here: everyone sees this). This is very inefficient. He simply focuses first and foremost on getting the ball back in play (keeping the point alive at all costs), and then out working his opponent.

This is so obvious it’s absurd.

2/3 of the sport should be on a quicker, lower bouncing court (3 surfaces: hard, clay, and grass). That’s the way tennis has always been played. Fortunately for those who subscribe to this style we’re describing, the sport retired indoor carpet. Not to mention (this is another discussion in and of itself) the way the sport has institutionally slowed grass and hard courts. People who know the sport clearly acknowledged that the Aussie Open in 2017 had faster than normal courts (which helped Federer). These same commentators noted the slowing of the U.S. Open hard courts. We know Wimbledon responded to the big serve era of the ’90s and has undoubtedly slowed those courts over the years.

This has benefited Rafa’s style, again, undoubtedly.

He has the clay monopoly; and the other quicker surfaces have slowed, which has at least helped him in his quest to become a multi-surface tennis player (keep in mind that his desire to win, to overcome these challenges, is the other side of the coin that I have argued, that this desire, this competitive fire, is so remarkable, thus supporting much of the success he’s had beyond clay).

Secondly, beyond this excessively defensive style that only really works on a slower surface like clay and the more modern hard and grass courts, his dependence upon the top spin is simply and purely limited to only the modern game. The suggestion that many make to bring the sport back to its roots by having players use once again wooden racquets doesn’t get very far in most current discussions of the sport. For one, it ain’t happening. The future involves advancing technology and other than monitoring some of these developments and outlawing certain advancements that will continue to change too much the very character of the sport, we’re certainly not “going back.”

But the key to the advancements is that players, starting back in the 80s even, were able to really develop the top-spin, which gives the player, obviously, more control over his or her shot. Everyone has benefited from this.

More to the point, the technological advancements, both in racquet and string material, have given way to the heavy top-spin. Lendl used this pretty well in his bullying style. Federer and Djokovic, as well as Pete and Andre, use and used a more modern top spin that’s, historically speaking, quite futuristic if we’re having that discussion.

Why is the top-spin so important to discuss with regards to Nadal? The top-spin, even the early uses of this shot, enabled the player to add control. Beyond one’s ability to spin a ball into the court, how else can one control his shot, keep it in play? Hitting the ball soft, we suspect. The advances in top-spin meant that players could hit the ball harder, more aggressively, and not worry so much about keeping the ball in play. Pretty simple.

If you say that Laver, let’s be honest (or other “greats” from earlier eras), could not hang with these players today, you have to first remember that those players from earlier eras did not have this ability to hit the big, heavy top-spin. They didn’t have the equipment. Hence the more gentlemanly character and style of the sport. Hence the flatter ball, the slice, etc.

Nadal’s reliance on this massive top-spin removes so much risk that used to be inherent to hitting a tennis ball (this is a nod to skill and strategy). When we think of variety adding depth and skill to a game, we know at least part of this claim considers the lack of skill or variety that characterizes a strictly BL game that relies mostly on the powerful, heavy top-spin that is only possible with modern technology. Sorry if one doesn’t see the limitations of this style, this set of circumstances.

People often say Rafa “pushes” the ball, which is not a compliment. Add to that the almost cartoon-like heavy top-spin that more “easily” keeps balls in play (moon-balling comes to mind), and you’re back to his defensive, overly-disciplined and even robotic style of tennis.

Does he have a genius net game? Yes he does. His style is effective; just look at the numbers. But for me to say that his competitive brilliance, his clutch gene, his ability to close the deal when the opportunities present themselves is more impressive than his style: I don’t think I’m being cryptic or illogical at all.

This is a discussion that could certainly be developed. 😉

2020

Nadal and Djokovic will certainly lead the charge at all of the bigger tournaments this coming season, starting with the Australian Open.

That Nadal has only won one Aussie Open is puzzling. Typically this has had a slower surface and he’s had a few close calls to back-up his 2009 win there.

This may sound redundant, lack the detail we all want, but if Djokovic gets knocked-out en route to the Final, expect Nadal to pick-up the win.

An element of style that is implied in my discussion above of Nadal concerns his fitness. My argument is that the shortcomings of his style are alleviated by his desire (which implies his fitness). His fitness, his ability and preference to play a more physical and endurance-oriented style are part of the same discussion of Nadal’s style.

So the Bo5 format clearly benefits Nadal.

If Novak is injured or just outlasted in Melbourne, Nadal is the clear favorite.

The majors are really all we’re concerned about in this macro view.

The same two along with Thiem will certainly be favorites at Roland Garros.

I jokingly (I think) said that I could see Rafa winning all four majors this year. If Novak can’t come-up with the goods, and we suspect he might not on a few big occasions, Nadal will be there to pick-up the pieces and the appropriate hardware.

I would not be surprised at all (nor would you) if Nadal finishes the year having collected his 20th and 21st majors.

That means I’m absolutely having trouble trusting a Medvedev, Thiem, Tsitsipas or Federer.

Do Djoker and Rafa, then, split the majors? A safe bet. Age probably prevents one from doing more damage. And between Rafa’s knees (or wrist) and Novak’s shoulders and elbows, you never know.

Some of the best analysis comes during the tournaments, given particular match-ups, draws, etc.  So, we’ll have a blast before, during and after these big events.

Melbourne, here we come.

Thanks for reading.

6 thoughts on “Nadal’s Style and 2020 in Brief

  1. Tony

    Matt: thanks for posting this. A few comments:

    1) Your write: “[Nadal] has really only one particular surface on which [he] flourishes.” As stated — and I certainly understand the larger point you are making re: Nadal’s affinity for clay — it’s not accurate. Or, perhaps: requires some additional context. Nadal has won 7 GS titles outside the friendly confines of Roland Garros (and made seven additional finals at Wimbledon and the AO, losing to Federer (3 times), Djokovic (3 times) and Wawrinka). When one’s total non-clay slams is only one less than ALL GS titles individually won by Lendl, Agassi and Connors, and equal with those accumulated by McEnroe, I’d say that constitutes more than robust flourishing. In reality, Nadal made himself into an all-time great on both grass and hard-courts. It’s just that because he is singularly, historically transcendent on clay — his FO record is arguably the most incredible achievement of extended dominance by any non-team sport athlete in history — his elite play on other surfaces is minimized by comparison. One cannot beat apex Federer over 5 sets on Wimbledon grass, and apex Djoker at the USO (slower courts or not) without having pantheon-level abilities. Fire, grit, determination, hustle, “physicality,” will, fighting spirit — all those complimentary yet intrinsically pejorative descriptions — just won’t get it done. Not at that rarefied level. It demeans the greatness, versatility and ruthless tactical acumen of both Fed and Novak to suggest that they could be overcome (or even challenged) by an indefatigable, one-trick pony.

    2) You now seem to be making a different argument than the one which I, er — a reader — contested.

    Previously, you had repeatedly claimed that Nadal’s overall game was deficient, that it had glaring weaknesses, but that he overcame this by magically “finding a way to win.” My rejoinder was that it appeared you were really objecting to matters of style and aesthetics: Nadal’s approach to tennis — the metronomic, FH to BH topspin, the defensive, war-of-attrition mindset, the positioning way behind the BL, etc. — offended your sensibilities relating to how the game should be played. And fair enough — style (tennis beauty) is most definitely in the eye of the beholder. My point was that, objectively, deconstructing the constituent parts of Nadal’s game (serve, FH, BH, volley, RoS, court coverage, footwork, defense), it is more than a stretch to suggest that there are glaring “weaknesses,” such that he is not a complete player. Certainly, he has relative weaknesses in comparison to a tiny percentage of other truly great players. But this is true of any player; nobody has a perfect tennis game, with all parts “the best.” Thus, while Nadal’s serve is dramatically improved, and he has used it to to great effect in shortening points on hard courts, it is not close to an elite weapon on tour. Likewise, his BH — which, too, has become far more reliable and potent as an offensive stroke in recent years — is not in the league of Novak, Nalbandian, top-form Murray, etc.

    In sum, I was not taking issue with your assessment of Nadal’s style (again, those judgments ultimately being personal preferences). I was challenging the assertion that Nadal’s overall tennis skills were essentially substandard — but that he somehow made up for it with fast twitch muscle and an unyielding, Spartan ethic. Maybe we are talking past each other. I say that Nadal, separate and apart from his approach to the game, is one of the most skilled players (evaluating the entire tool box) who has ever lived. I further say that were he not, no amount of grunting, striving, tendon-straining, chest-bursting effort would suffice to compete with players as historically gifted as Roger and Novak, his eternal foils in the GOAT tug of war. On tennis’s Mount Olympus, everyone is supernaturally gifted.

    Regards,

    Like

    1. Tony,
      1) I have argued continually that the sport, without question, has changed too much to compare eras. This is at the heart of my HRFRT thesis. Making that comparison of Nadal’s off-clay majors to the likes of McEnroe or Agassi or whomever is very flawed. Even in this post here the discussion implies the impossibility to compare, whether we’re talking about Laver and those guys from a long bygone era not having access to today’s technologically advanced equipment, or how well Nadal would have competed against McEnroe, Becker, et al., on the carpet or other faster surfaces. So much has changed. This just illustrates for me how badly we need my HRFRT.

      2) Nadal playing in such a defensive position and, therefore, so dependent upon today’s outlandish racquet and string technology speaks to inferior tennis. Remember the reaction to when Guga arrived on the scene at the French? People were pointing fingers at the newer string technology. This is performance enhancing equipment. Pushing and moon-balling is not how we describe elite tennis skill. No way.

      Indeed, his FH is one of the deadliest in the game, BH can be very very good, but the FH, especially, is a shot that one couldn’t make 15 years ago because of the technology. His net game is great. He can read other players, hit big FS when he needs to, find exceptional passing shots when all hope seems to be lost.

      But between his more defensive stance (the ROS position on hard courts is, really, kinda embarrassing) and his ground strokes that rely on a massive margin for error, it’s a style that works, but lacks the ageless, classical quality of this sport. He’s not the only one here. So much of the sport has devolved to this kind of almost unsustainable power BL tennis.

      Some of this is personal preference, but I will argue all of this all day long.

      We haven’t even discussed the field. Beyond the Big 3 for decades now has been simply rubbish. Style is partly the culprit here, too.

      Like

      1. Tony

        Matt: I actually agree with your point that it is very difficult, bordering on impossible, to compare eras, due to the variables you cite.

        And I have no doubt that some of the legends from the past, who did not have the benefit of modern racket technology, might have goosed their trophy totals with access to Rackets of the Future.

        However, I think there are flaws in your analysis. First, you posit that today’s rackets are what allow Nadal to generate his vicious topspin. Absolutely true. So far, so good. But everyone he is playing against also has the benefit of that technology, which gives them the same access to greatly enhanced power, racket head speed, spin control, etc. In other words: in this era, on a level playing field re: technology, Nadal still dominates, in a world of 140 mph mega-servers and laser guided baseliners, which also could never have been achieved using antiquated rackets.

        Second — and I think this is the more crucial error — you assume that had Nadal played in a prior era, he wouldn’t have adapted his playing style. I think that assumption is unreasonable. When Nadal practices — many have commented on this — he frequently hits harder, flatter and deeper ground strokes than he typically employs in the match. Margin of error and all that. But I have no doubt that Rafa — like any great champion — would have altered and molded his game in such a way as to best utilize and maximize the effectiveness of the tools at hand. He would have won a different way.

        Ultimately, you are making value judgments — which you are completely entitled to do (heck, that’s the whole point of these fun discussions) — about which styles of play you find most pleasing. The statement: “Nadal playing in such a defensive position … speaks to inferior tennis” is not an objective claim about the nature of tennis, or of Nadal’s skill set. Rather, it is an entirely subjective opinion about better or lesser styles.

        I’ll cling to my crude Nadalism, you’ll pledge eternal allegiance to evolved Federology. Let’s hope for an entertaining (and maybe surprising) AO.

        Best

        Like

      2. “First, you posit that today’s rackets are what allow Nadal to generate his vicious topspin. Absolutely true. So far, so good. But everyone he is playing against also has the benefit of that technology, which gives them the same access to greatly enhanced power, racket head speed, spin control, etc.”

        Swing and a miss, Tony. I just mouse-trapped you. It’s different with Nadal because of his physical prowess. Which has been the second half of my claim the whole time. He succeeds despite this inferior style, relying on equipment, etc. We basically have a bunch of Gugas out there, benefiting from this technology.

        “Second — and I think this is the more crucial error — you assume that had Nadal played in a prior era, he wouldn’t have adapted his playing style.”

        This is laughable. Would he have different parents? You’re saying in a different era he would have had a different body, different playing style, he could have played all-court, etc.? That’s ridiculous.

        But good effort.

        Like

  2. Tony

    You need to build a better mousetrap.

    You’re saying that Nadal is some Herculean, physical outlier on tour? Have you seen Berrettini? Safin? The human fire hydrant that is Fognini? Delpo? Kyrgios? As Johnny Mac would say, you cannot be serious. The notion that Nadal is some unrivaled physical specimen and thus derives extra special — indeed, could it even be “unfair”? — benefit from racket technology is, to use your chosen term, ridiculous on its face. This almost sounds like … whining.

    And if you are incapable of envisioning changed tactics (same parents, same body, same carefully arranged water bottles) as elementary as: “I’ll hit the ball flatter and harder because I can’t impart so much spin with this racket” — well, not such a good effort.

    Like

    1. You’re making my argument for me and/or you haven’t watched much tennis during the last 15 years. Ask anyone with a brain who is in Nadal’s league physically. Comparing him to Safin or Foghat? It’s like you’re really new to the game here.

      And run you’re little thought experiment about Nadal adapting to a full-court style by a different audience. That fails here.

      But, again, good effort.

      Like

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