Rafael Nadal’s road toward the 2014 French Open title is another lesson in a champion’s resilience. Though the Spanish warrior has monopolized this title for nearly a decade, there are always challenging new conditions and competitors. Nobody has been more successful at finding solutions to his tennis difficulties than Nadal.
He started the clay-court season in getting shellacked by David Ferrer at Monte Carlo. Now, at the culmination of Paris’ most prestigious tennis weekend, he has symbolically browbeat his troubles with an offensive barrage and burial of his little Spanish brother.
We've seen it before from Nadal. He can translate a more cautious game into furious resolve. He furrows his brow and unleashes his inner-Dark Knight. His countenance and body language show his opponents that he is ready to defend his title as fiercely as ever.
Yet, Nadal’s commitment to more aggressive tactics has been the key to better tennis and a brighter outlook in winning two more matches.
From Defender to Offender
Nadal circa 2005-2008 played behind his defense first and foremost. His retrieving, court speed and patient topspin ground down a previous mini-generation of tennis players. He could outlast others with unparalleled margins of efficiency. His defense was an offense that could bludgeon everyone into submission.
The tennis world was forced to change, and there has been a gradual evolution of more baseline bashers and scrambling offenders. Nadal has had to stay ahead with calculated adjustments and new ways of winning.
Since 2011, Nadal has had to respond often to the great play from Novak Djokovic. They have split much of their success but have forced each other to keep attacking in new ways. Nadal’s 2013 North American blitz may have been the absolute finest hybrid of Nadal’s defensive philosophy merged with a more aggressive offense.
There has been more adversity for Nadal in 2014, especially with back problems and nagging doubts. His early clay-court season showed that he could no longer win from the comforts of five meters beyond the baseline. There were too many players that found success by attacking him early and often.
Even the Ferrer match showed a tale of two Nadals.
In the first set, Nadal could not win with strokes that were replies to a more assertive Ferrer. Nadal admitted in ESPN that he lacked the intensity that Ferrer had. He coughed up 15 unforced errors (Ferrer had 8) while playing the role of responder.
The second set took time for Nadal to play bolder tennis, but he forced Ferrer into mistakes. Nadal stepped in, moved around and set up for as many forehands as he could hit.
The difference by the third and fourth sets was startling. His forehand was precise and lethal. He tattooed shots with 45-degree angles, painted corner lines and forced Ferrer into 28 errors over the final two sets (only 13 games). Nadal had found a zone of comfort where he could operate with force and safety. He had imposed his game once again, albeit with more offensive pace and purpose.
He dominated 10 consecutive games and threw in a third-set bagel with enough garlic and lox to take away Ferrer’s competitive appetite. The breadstick that followed may as well have been a club. Indeed, Ferrer wandered about in the fourth set in a kind of trance, as if he had been hit by a Vespa scooter in a dark Parisian alley.
Right Timing to Be Aggressive
Next up for his semifinal match is Andy Murray. In the first set of their Italian Open quarterfinal match, the Scotsman played a powerful game of tennis, by his standards, in pushing around Nadal. He understood that the best hope in defeating Nadal was to come in, hit hard and use both sides of the court. Though Nadal rallied for the victory, Murray had at least devised a plan to win.
Nadal’s comeback versus Murray saw him hit more forehands up the line to the Murray forehand. He took the initiative and more quickly turned his defensive positioning into an advantage.
When Nadal gains this ground, he is still willing to keep hitting with offensive safety, as long as he does not let go of his stranglehold. Expect more of this strategy in their semifinal match, especially if Nadal finds himself in a hole.
Murray is a better matchup for Nadal than the other two semifinalists, Ernests Gulbis and Djokovic. Gulbis has more power than Nadal and loves to smoke high topspin with his backhand. Djokovic attacks with all kinds of angles and flatter shots that have all but stymied Nadal in recent matches. Either player could defeat Nadal if they are calling their shots.
But Nadal does have answers. His defensive shotmaking is an offensive weapon when he makes this commitment. He does know how to stretch his opponents and come in behind shots. There have been times this has not worked out in recent weeks, and often he has not made the attempt, but it’s clear that he has to play this way. He cannot sit back as often as he did in 2008 or even 2013.
Fortunately for Nadal, he is aware of how to make this adjustment, and his sense of timing is suddenly better in deciding when to play in and attack and when to be patient. It’s as much of a cerebral approach as a technical one.
Playing aggressive tennis is always about advantages and timing. Nadal will need to be at his very best this weekend, but meanwhile he keeps finding ways to adapt and win.