When you think of Rafael Nadal, you might think of a player who hits balls with hellacious topspin and grinds out points on clay. His RPMs and his sweat grab the glory. But the 11-time French Open champion uses a few insidious tricks that go beyond the obvious strokes and traditional tactics.
All of Rafa’s ways and means traveled to Roland Garros in 2019 — the energy, the rituals, the patterns of play — it’s all been put to use in another run to the semifinals, this time at age 33. He’ll need every tactic at his disposal, the conspicuous and the cunning, as he takes on Roger Federer and potentially Novak Djokovic after that.
Here are three examples of the subtle mental maneuvers that Nadal makes against his opponents.
He makes them wait
Strictly from a length-of-match standpoint, Nadal is one of the slowest tennis players of this era. And there are a host of things Nadal does to extend matches — and possibly distract and annoy his opponents in the process.
The ultimate creature of habit, Nadal starts managing time with his first step on court. When the chair umpire prepares to toss the coin and the presence of both players is required in the middle of the court before the start of the match, Nadal is typically the second to arrive — after a delay of several seconds while he goes through his routines with water bottles.
Once the match is underway, Nadal’s pre-point rituals have been fodder for everything from complaints to comedy routines. Even the typically chilled-out Roger Federer has been critical of the time that Nadal takes between points. By rule, players are limited to 25 seconds between points. Beginning this year at most events, the sport put in formal, visible shot clocks in an attempt to keep servers from abusing the rule.
According to an analysis by Melbourne, Australia-based Data Driven Sports Analytics of more than 140 matches each for Nadal, Federer and Djokovic from 2008 through this year, Rafa averaged 26.1 seconds between points when serving — the longest of the so-called “Big 3.”3 Nadal’s average time between points is over the limit — and that’s just an average, which means that he regularly serves beyond the 25-second rule. Chair umpires can use their discretion in starting the clock, so, clearly, Nadal is getting some wiggle room.
Nadal finds a way to play on Rafa time when he’s returning as well, going through a catalog of rituals and often turning his back on the server or lifting his racquet until he’s ready to receive.
The overall effect is that Nadal asserts his own pace of play, which can be legitimately discomfiting for opponents.
He conditions them like Pavlov
One of the hardest things to do in professional tennis is return serves. Speeds regularly top 125 mph, and then there’s the spin. Professional tennis players also excel at “spot serving” — landing serves in precise locations. They most often hit close to the lines of the service box, placing the serve at angles to inflict the most damage. Those most-visited, go-to spots are either up the T, which is the middle of the court, or out wide, which is on the outer edge of the service box. Servers work hard to place their serves effectively on both the deuce side (serving from the right side to the servers’ left and returners’ right), when the game score is usually tied, and on the ad side, when one player is always ahead.
Nadal has a curious modus operandi when serving on the deuce side. The effect is Pavlovian: It conditions his opponents for one thing and then kills them with another.
Because Nadal is a left-handed server, the natural play for him in this situation is to serve up the T. The ATP Tour has collected serve placement data from 2011 to 2019 for Masters 1000 events, which are just beneath Grand Slams and the Tour Finals in terms of stature, ranking points and prize money. According to that data set, on clay, Nadal’s first serve has been up the T 56.4 percent of the time on the deuce side. His success rate for this location — meaning how often he wins the point — is a healthy 68.5 percent. Much less often — 27 percent of the time — Nadal takes his first serve out wide from the deuce court on clay. And in that spot, his success rate is eye-popping, 74.8 percent. In 2019 alone, it’s up to 79.2 percent.
Why would Nadal use a serve that is statistically so successful for him so infrequently? It’s possible that the tactic is about mentally conditioning the returner, greasing the tracks as it were, and then flipping his pattern when he really needs it.
Indeed, data from that same set of ATP Masters tournaments reveals this morsel about Nadal on clay: He habitually hits his first serve from the deuce court up the T on nearly all scores. The most notable exception: when he’s down 15-40. When Nadal faces two break points against him, his primary service pattern switches to his secondary, “money” spot — the out wide. At 15-40, he goes T only 39.7 percent of the time, and his primary pattern becomes out-wide, at 44.9 percent.
How does the King of Clay perform with that deuce court, out-wide serve down two break points? Put simply, he crushes: 82.9 percent of the time he wins the point.
It’s a smart and subtle way to serve in the situation, and his success rate suggests that his opponent, potentially predisposed to Nadal’s T serve, does not see it coming.
Granted, it’s also a bit of a “tell” for anyone lucky enough to find himself with a pair of break points against Nadal — those guys should look for the out wide serve. But more than that, it reveals a mental game-within-the-game orchestrated by Nadal.
He turns balls hit to his backhand side into forehand winners
Nadal’s forehand is his biggest weapon. Opponents try to dodge it at all costs, which means avoiding hitting the ball to the ad court as much as possible against the southpaw. A good way to understand the baseline is to divide it into four vertical zones — two in the deuce court and two in the ad court. In tennis, these zones are sometimes labeled A, B, C and D, with A being the out wide in the deuce court, all the way to the D zone, which is the out wide in the ad court.
If you’re Nadal’s opponent and you’re trying to avoid his forehand, you would hit to zones A and B (the ad court). And that’s where he gets you.
The King of Clay is also the King of Running Around His Backhand to Hit Forehand. He’s an expert at it. Indeed, he loves to run around his backhand to hit forehand so much that in some matches, he has hit about the same number of winners from what would be his natural backhand side of the court — zones A and B — than from his normal, left-handed forehand side of the court — zones C and D. Through five rounds at this year’s French Open, 54 percent of Nadal’s forehand winners (46/85) have been hit as run-around forehands from zones A and B, according to officially recorded statistics from Roland Garros.
By comparison, consider the right-handed Djokovic, the number one player in the world. Through the first four rounds at Roland Garros this year, 42 percent of Djokovic’s forehand winners have been run-around forehands (14/33).
Nadal is like a spider looking to snare a rally ball, and players would be ill-advised to hit toward Nadal’s backhand unless they can be sure he’ll only be able to use his backhand. At the same time, better not hit too far out wide or the errors will flow.
Just when you think you know Nadal, think again. He will bend your mind more than he bends the ball.