Rafael Nadal’s kingdom is rapidly expanding. Already affectionately dubbed the King of Clay, Nadal is laying claim to another large chunk of the tennis world with a dominant summer performance on hard courts.
And all of his accomplishments have come after many doubted he’d even be back in top form this year following a nagging knee injury during the winter.
If you’re still doubting; you’re not watching.
He’s currently riding an 18-match winning streak—and counting—on hard courts. It would be one thing if the Spaniard was showing any signs of slowing down. You know, losing a set here or there and being forced to stay on the court for extra minutes.
But that isn’t happening in New York. He’s making it look easy.
To this point, Rafa has dropped just 21 games and hasn’t lost a set during his first three matches. The road is going to get tougher in the coming rounds, but easily dispatching competitors at a Grand Slam tournament can’t be underscored.
Novak Djokovic has noticed the changes in Nadal’s game on hard courts, too, per Tennis Now:
Djokovic says Nadal is playing the best hard court tennis of his career and it's pretty hard to argue - Tennis Now http://t.co/Jfs0YkQZQa— TennisNow (@Tennis_Now) August 25, 2013
But haven’t we seen Nadal contend and even succeed on the surface in the past?
He won the 2010 U.S. Open and has been in the mix in several of the biggest tournaments since. Appearances in Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals in 2011 and the Australian Open finals in 2012 among his successes.
Competing hasn’t been a problem for him, though, winning titles against top competition on the surface has been. With only one hard-court crown on his resume, Nadal is ready to add some more and different silverware to his trophy case.
So what’s changed for him this year? Why will he continue to play at a high level even after he blows past the initial rounds and meets the top contenders in the coming days?
ESPN’s Howard Bryant broke down the adjustments Nadal has made that will help him remain a threat throughout the tournament:
Traditionally, he would stand behind the baseline, content to grind, rally and wait for opportunities to employ his sizzling groundstrokes, not dissimilar to his clay style. The strategy worked until he faced elite players. Djokovic, with his two-handed backhand and penchant for attacking balls by creeping inside the baseline, constantly put Nadal too much on the defensive.
Against the tougher and more powerful servers, Nadal’s old thinking wasn’t getting him anywhere on the faster cement surfaces. Sitting back behind the baseline and allowing hard-hit shots to pick up speed off of the bounce was dooming his chances.
But the best part about his performance this summer isn’t just the changes that he’s made on the baseline.
He’s serving harder and mixing it up on returns to not put himself in a corner strategically. We’ve also seen him employ various approaches depending on the situation and it’s worked out tremendously to this point.
If he can remain aggressive and stick to his game plan, Nadal’s dream summer on hard courts will have a storybook ending in New York. An ending that would cap off a stunning performance and solidify his return to the top.