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Rafa's Roots

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Nadal© Getty ImagesRafael Nadal and Roger Federer are great players and ambassadors for the sport.

To become a great, Rafael Nadal learned from former greats. Over the past six years the Spaniard has become a titan of the sport.

Champions in full bloom appear strikingly original. From the scintillating shot-making of Rod Laver, to the unwavering steadiness of Bjorn Borg, the counterpunching fury of Jimmy Connors, the touch of John McEnroe, the concussive brilliance of Pete Sampras and the silky-smooth prowess of Roger Federer, the man atop tennis’ steep pyramid displays an array of techniques, shots and manners that seem his and his alone. 

"Nadal is like a guy hitting to you with two forehands. It's murder."

Behold Rafael Nadal. Among peers, the prospect of playing Nadal is frightening, his game summed up by Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob in two words: “absolutely brutal.” Among the public, Nadal-as-champion is endearing, everything from his sportsmanship to his competitive moxie cherished. As Connors says, “He works hard, goes about it the right way and you can tell when he goes out there and plays, nobody runs out to the baseline like he does.”

ConnorsThat Connors - like Nadal, a left-handed forceful baseliner with off-the-charts intensity - would make such a statement speaks to an overlooked aspect of Nadal’s game. When the champion commands the world, his game’s singular genius seemingly erases history. But as the saying goes, behind every tennis player there is another tennis player. And if in Nadal’s case the most public example of that premise is his uncle Toni, the strands and spins of Rafa’s strokes bear the marks of a great many others. 

Step back from the planet Nadal currently presides over. Journey back in place and time to a Mediterranean island off the coast of Spain. Picture 10-year-old Rafa hitting one ball after another. Inside and outside the lines, the Mallorcan hangs on the words of an uncle with insights not just into tennis, but of broader topics that teach the boy about self-reliance, manners and even matters of esoteric philosophy. The boy is also inspired by another uncle, a world-class football player. The boy has already been playing tennis for six years, striking the ball with two hands off both sides.

At which point his uncle is struck by an inspiration from tennis history. Why not have the boy play left-handed? Left-handers may only comprise 10 per cent of the world’s population, but in tennis they have made a significant impact, Laver, Connors and McEnroe among the very best who have turned the tables on opponents with a distinctive vengeance. Though it’s hard to imagine when Toni Nadal had this idea he imagined it would yield a tennis superpower, certainly he tapped into something that could give the boy a distinct advantage. A page from the game’s past had been absorbed. With signature urgency, the boy, flexible in head, heart and body, applied his uncle’s suggestion.

"[Earn] struck it with this whip-like, bolo-like motion. No-one else hit the ball like that."

Of course at first this did nothing in shaping what Nadal struck from his right side. It hardly mattered if at age ten this was now called a backhand instead of a forehand. As a natural right-hander, young Rafa drew on the strength of his right hand to drive his body weight through the ball and fling the ball into play. Or at least that seemed one source of strength. Only well into his pro career would Nadal’s backhand reveal more textured dimensions.

The forehand was another matter. In the late ‘40s and early 50s, years before Toni Nadal, there was a touring professional named Carl Earn, a left-hander from Los Angeles who struck his forehand with a pronounced Western grip – a grip that at that point had been out of fashion for more than a quarter-century. Earn reached the quarter-finals of the 1950 U.S. Pro Championships, losing to Jack Kramer. According to one of Earn’s contemporaries, Hall of Famer Pancho Segura, “He struck it with this whip-like, bolo-like motion. No-one else hit the ball like that. The vicious topspin was deadly. It was a lot like Nadal’s stroke.”   

Vilas in 1976.Fast-forward 30 years and a more visible example emerges – one Toni Nadal likely saw. Along with Borg, left-handed Argentine Guillermo Vilas (pictured right) was one of the first players to primarily strike the ball with topspin off both sides from the baseline. His forehand was a forceful drive, the ball whipping and dipping in ways quite uncommon at the time. In the '90s another top-spinning left-hander emerged, Austrian Thomas Muster. Both Vilas and Muster had significant runs that earned them the unofficial crown as “King of Clay,” a title validated further when each won the French Open. 

Meanwhile, on Mallorca, young Rafa was honing his own stroke. Toni Nadal of course knew about Vilas and Muster. But he also was aware that the boy would find his way to his own distinctive style. That such factors as lighter rackets and, in the late ‘90s, the emergence of new strings that aided the increased generation of spin, would all play a role in Rafa building a forehand that, while drawing without likely knowing it from Earn, Vilas and Muster, emerged as completely distinctive and incredibly effective.

"Nadal is able to defend from deep positions in the court because of his phenomenal ability to spin the ball."

According to John Yandell, researcher and publisher of the on-line tennis magazine Tennisplayer.net, “What distinguishes Nadal’s forehand from others on the tour is the consistently higher levels of spin he generates – both the topspin and the sidespin that makes it jump to the side after it bounces.” Yandell’s extensive research reveals that on the average, Nadal’s forehand spins 3,300 revolutions per minute (RPM) – and sometimes well past 4,000 RPM. Says Yandell, “His average forehand has about 20 per cent more spin on it than most others. His ability to spin the ball is related to his defensive capabilities. Nadal is able to defend from deep positions in the court because of his phenomenal ability to spin the ball.”

So this was the Nadal who at the tender age of 19 won Roland Garros the first time he played it and by the end of the year was ranked No. 2 in the world: a self-made left-hander with a whopper of a forehand, a reasonable degree of competency on the backhand and a serve that ostensibly merely put the ball in play. Added to the strokes was yet another distinct set of elements that at one point were contradictory, but somehow found synthesis in Nadal’s makeup: the poise and sportsmanship of Borg, blended with the fire-breathing competitive makeup of Connors.

What’s amazing, though, is to see how Nadal has continued to enhance his game even upon climbing so far up the tennis mountain – and in the process, further tipped his hat to greats that preceded him even while he’s concurrently created his own distinctive playing style.

Agassi backhandYandell is fascinated by what he’s learned studying Nadal’s backhand. Says Yandell, “Everyone talks about the fact that being a natural right-hander gives him an advantage by using his right hand. That might be true. But what’s most interesting to me is the use of his left hand. The vast majority of pros hit the two-handed backhand with the dominant hand in a bent configuration. Nadal hits with both arms straight at contact. One of the very few players ever to do that was Andre Agassi – one of the best two-handers in history. When you hit with the dominant hand straight, it’s more similar to a one-handed backhand. It’s advantageous for hitting the ball early, on the rise, flat and hard. So Nadal is able to hit flatter, rocket-like lasers off the backhand side – a weapon of a different type than his forehand.” Segura’s belief is that, “Nadal is like a guy hitting to you with two forehands. It’s murder.”   

And while the Nadal bazooka-like two-hander has similarities to the early-struck, time-robbing drives of Agassi and Connors, consider also his incorporation of the one-handed slice. If hardly elegant in form in the manner of such elegant slice backhands as those struck by Ken Rosewall or his fellow left-handed Spaniard, Manuel Orantes, Nadal’s willingness to deploy this shot shows a tactical awareness.  In prior eras, the likes of Rosewall, Orantes and another lefty, John McEnroe, used the slice as a form of probe, foil, approach shot and defence. While a stretched Nadal will use the slice for defence, he is also wise enough to use it as a way of forcing his opponent to apply enough topspin to make the ball slow down and give Nadal a chance to run around his backhand and deploy his forehand.    

"He's a student of the game. He appreciates the game."

The shot Nadal enhanced the most in 2010 was his serve. It’s an amazing evolution. Early in his career, Nadal’s delivery was often predictable and attackable – at least to those who dared take such a chance given how well he backed it up. In this case, he was much like Connors, who’s often considered to have had one of the worst serves ever of a world number one – but like Nadal, could also back it up with incredible counterpunching. In 2010, though, Nadal stepped near the realm of McEnroe – the world’s best serve for a good deal of his career. Nadal had altered his motion. With his shoulders, legs and hips more engaged, everything from the delivery’s speed to its variety picked up considerably.

Nadal has enhanced his game by drawing on so many aspects of what’s come before him. As Andy Roddick says about the Spaniard, “He’s a student of the game. He appreciates the game. I think he knows the history of the game.” It’s hard to imagine what more Nadal can bring to the court in 2011 and beyond. Increased serve-volley? Coming in on his returns? Further deployment of the slice backhand? But in Nadal’s hands, what may seem improbable one day could soon enough become business-as-usual. 

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