Ranking Rafael Nadal's 5 Most Effective Strokes

Christopher Impiglia@@impigliatoFeatured ColumnistJuly 1, 2013

Ranking Rafael Nadal's 5 Most Effective Strokes

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    Rafael Nadal clearly did not have his most impressive Wimbledon 2013 after his eighth French Open title.

    However, he has clearly established himself as one of, if not, the greatest ever to play the sport of tennis, alongside Roger Federer. Besides his mental and physical strength, he has dominated the court, thanks to an array of weapons of which few opponents can match. So, how would I rank his five most effective strokes?

    Begin the slideshow to find out! 

5. Volleys

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    With blistering groundstrokes and a baselining, spin-oriented game, it's easy to forget that Nadal has some pretty good hands up at net. 

    Take this shot for example.

    It's also easy to forget that yes, Nadal does once in a while play doubles. He and Lopez have made a particularly strong partnership, together winning four titles, two in Indian Wells and two in Doha. Altogether, Nadal has eight doubles titles. In 2005, he was ranked as high as No. 26 in the world.    

    It's not uncommon for players to use doubles as a way to improve volleys. Perhaps, this was Nadal's incentive for taking the court with a partner, for as we all know, doubles is (rather unfortunately) not quite as prestigious as singles (God forbid he'd consider playing mixed!). Maybe he just wanted to have a little fun? 

    Regardless, for a baseliner, Nadal is extremely comfortable at net, even if he comes in only to finish off a point.

4. Backhand

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    Perhaps, Nadal's most underestimated stroke is his backhand. 

    This video shows pretty common tactics adopted by his opponents, in this case Djokovic: keep the ball away from his forehand so that he can't dictate play, and wait for an opening. As I mention in the next slide, Nadal largely uses his slice to stay in the point, but when set up, he doesn't hesitate to come up with the goods via the two-hander.

    Obviously, he's not going to go for a down-the-line winner like this one very often, but he has proven that his backhand, if not particularly a weapon, is also not a liability.

    What makes me put his backhand this low on the list is that Nadal's most effective strikes from this side of the court are generally inside-out or inside-in forehands, as (SPOILER ALERT) slide No. 5 explains in more detail. 

    So, whereas his backhands can indeed be devastating at times (take for example his win against Federer at Indian Wells or even in Rome this year), it's certainly not his go-to favorite. 

3. Slice

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    This video presents a pretty extreme case. It's not every day that Nadal manages to hit three backhand slices in a row complete with 180-degree spins. But, this video does demonstrate the effectiveness of this particular stroke. 

    Call me obvious, but it's important to note that like any good defensive player, especially one with a two-handed backhand, having a slice in the arsenal is key. Two-handers may get you the power, but they certainly don't have the greatest reach.

    Thus, just like how the video on the previous slide demonstrates, Nadal has the ability to use his slice to keep himself in the point long enough to become the aggressor.

    But, besides the defensive side of the game, Nadal also uses his slice effectively on the offensive. It has consistently allowed him to change the pace of the point very much like Federer or Murray. For this reason, I believe his slice is largely responsible for allowing him to break the bonds of being solely a clay-court specialist, dominating on all surfaces of the game.

2. Serve

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    "I personally struggle with lefty serves," said American Sam Querrey, in quotes given to USA Today.

    This is simply a fact of life. If you're a righty, chances are you are not very experienced against southpaws and don't look forward to slice serves out wide in the ad court or down the middle in the deuce court. 

    Nadal has always used his serve effectively to open up the court for his forehand. However, as Douglas Robson notes in USA Today, pre-2010, if his serve "wasn't exactly a liability, it wasn't something opponents feared. It lacked pop. Some saw a slight hitch. It was attackable." This was especially the case on his second serve. 

    However, in Nadal's quest for his career Grand Slam, he put some serious work in his serve. In the U.S. Open 2010 tournament alone, his serve went up on average 12 mph from 2009. The video above shows just how big Nadal was serving to finally win the U.S. Open.

    This year, in the final of Roland Garros, Nadal was serving only, on average, 111 mph. In addition, he's also only managed 104 aces this year, in comparison to Federer's 201 or Isner's 380. But, he's still managed to win 73 percent of points when his first serve has gone, not far off from his 75 percent won in 2010, according to atpworldtour.com.

    We all know what he's accomplished in the last few months following his injury, and there is no doubt that his serve continues to play an integral role in his recent dominance (with an exception being this year's Wimbledon). 

1. Forehand

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    Yup, what you all expected. 

    There is simply no denying the fact that Nadal's forehand is one of the best the game has ever seen. Yes, there have been several massive forehands in tennis, thanks to people like Fernando Gonzalez, Juan Martin Del Potro, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Robin Soderling (among others), but Nadal's is unique. 

    The video above is a very comprehensive study about just what makes Nadal's forehand as amazing as it is. Not only has the stroke itself evolved into a spin-generating monster, but its prowess is also boosted by all the other elements of his game: i.e. his footwork, his serve and his very nature of being a lefty.

    For most righties, playing a lefty is difficult. Similar to how I rated the effectiveness of Nadal's serve in the previous side, essentially this comes down to a lefty being able to use generally his/her strongest, most consistent shot (forehand crosscourt) to the generally vulnerable backhand of a righty. 

    Federer can surely attest to this. That lefty forehand of Nadal's is all that stood in the way of the Swiss champion's continued dominance of the game at the height of his success, and what has allowed the Spaniard to consistently remain one of the best in the world.