Ten-time Grand Slam champion, Rafael Nadal, has a conundrum on his hands in 2012.
For the first seven to eight months of 2011, there was no one better than him on the planet bar one man—but for the next four to five months, things changed a bit. Nadal succumbed to a number of uncharacteristic losses, even in the best of situations, but he ended the year on a high of sorts by winning the Davis Cup with Spain.
Rafael Nadal's legacy in tennis is a done deal—only a fool would argue otherwise. 2011, from a Nadal perspective, was a word of advice and an encouragement in one bundle—there is no end to how much one can improve.
It is neither fair nor correct to claim that a fully fit Rafael Nadal is unbeatable (although, I have reservations about this idea on clay courts in a best of five sets match). However, I think it is justified to say—after a loss—that a player wasn't fully functional.
Here's a look at the three parameters that make Rafael Nadal's game fully functional:
One of the hugely important variables in modern-day tennis is depth off the ground-strokes and the importance is amplified even more due to the emergence of technologically-advanced rackets.
As we see in almost every match on the pro circuit nowadays, thanks to the new rackets, short balls are punished more severely than ever—and this, as we all know, is a particular advantage (depending on your point of view) that more and more are using against Nadal.
You will know that Rafael Nadal is playing well and is ahead in a rally when roughly greater than 80 percent of his shots (exempting winners, of course) clear the service line.
Court positioning relative to the center of the court
The biggest thing Nadal has got going for him is his movement—when Nadal can approach the ball any which way he wants, the opponent is automatically in trouble.
A good gauge of how well Nadal is moving is to see how quickly/easily he gets to the center of the court during a point.
Whilst it is almost instinctive for the top players to move to the center of the court, and while it may seem like a banal thing to point out—the willingness of a player to return to the center of the court, when the opponent is in control of the point (unless they anticipate where the opponent will hit next and thus forego moving to the center), is a barometer of the player's confidence, fitness and interest in that game.
There are two ways to take time away from your opponent: you either take the ball early or you step up the court. Let's put it this way: the less Nadal has to run around the backhand, the more comfortable he is during a point.
Nadal is at his best when running around is a luxury, not a "must." When Nadal is at or near the center of the court: not only are his two forehand options easier to hit, he also saves time—for himself—that he would have lost running around the backhand and he takes time away from the opponent.
So two things to look out for: does he move at all towards the center and is he at the center when his stroke is returned.
Example: Rafael Nadal vs. Hewitt, Australian Open 2004. (Also, look at how close Nadal is to the baseline when receiving serve).
Winners—especially from the forehand down-the-line—are an incredibly accurate barometer of how well Nadal is playing.
In general, the winners to unforced error ratio may paint a less pretty picture of Nadal's game at the time. Regardless, a high number of winners means that Nadal's forehand is working (as most of his winners come from that wing). And when Nadal's forehand is working, the rest of his game usually follows suit.
Example: US Open 2010 final.
It can be difficult, but if you make a conscious decision to look out for these three things in Doha, the Australian Open and further down the line, it will make for even more enjoyable viewing for yourself and you will be able to chart Nadal's progress as the year goes by.
Hope you all enjoy the tennis that is to come. It's being a pleasure writing for you all.
Recommended viewing: Rome Masters Final 2011.