Creature vs. Creature: Rafael Nadal Is Getting Back to Form

antiMatterSenior Analyst ISeptember 13, 2009

It is the second Sunday in New York, but we are not talking about the finals here, though I don't think anyone in their right mind could fault the draw if we had this match set up for the finals.

Perhaps next year, or in another couple of years, we will get to watch it on a second Sunday, but this time around the heavens aren't letting the tennis go on as per schedule.

I ran into some trouble with Long John Silver, who wanted to take Rafael Nadal's side as well. He even went to the extent of suggesting that I should compete with him to get the right.

But here I am, playing on Rafael's side of the net...well, perhaps Long somehow got convinced that the finals would go better with his ranking, while Rajat, "The Analyst" (yeah the rest of us are simply "Analysts" while he is "The Analyst"), presents Juan Martin del Potro's side of the story.


The Big Picture

All of you know how Nadal went ahead of the pack last year and at the beginning of this one; winning on grass, hard, as well as on clay, becoming the No. 1 in the world.

Well, you also know what happened next. His efforts culminated in an injury. He couldn't defend two of his Slams, and he slumped to world No. 3 before the Open, ending up seeded third for the first time in a few years.

Nadal's comeback has not been sensational by any means. He reached the quarters in one of the tournaments and the semis of the other. But in the Open he seems to be regaining his form.

He seems to be able to run well and is getting the accuracy on the shots back. His service percentage is over 70 again, and his unforced error count is trending to 20.

It is interesting in this scenario how his matchup against del Potro would go. Before Rafa started to fall victim to his efforts, he completely dominated del-P, on hard, clay, and grass. That was until Indian Wells this year.

But since then, Rafa has lost to del Potro twice. Once in Miami, and then in Montreal. Rafa's supporters write off these two, since they came at a time Rafa was not fit. In Miami, he was tired after dominating the field for the hardcourt season, and in Montreal, he was just coming back from injury.

There could be reason to buy some of that, since in Miami, Rafa played passively, landing his strokes inside the service box, and in Montreal, his statistics were poor—a first-serve percentage of around 65 and an unforced error count of close to 20 for a two-set match; he clearly lacked match practice in that encounter.

But it should not be discounted that del-P has improved physically, technically, and mentally. He will go in with the conviction that he can beat this guy, which perhaps was lacking in some of their previous encounters.

Considering Rafa is clawing his way back into form, we are left with a lot of unknowns in the equation. It is precisely such an equation that invariably gives fans a lot of anticipation.

This one promises to be a match for the ages.


The Mechanics

Both of these players are solid base-liners. But the differences are there for all to see.

Rafa hits his forehand heavy with a lot of top-spin and penetration. When he is on a roll, he can time and again trace the baseline with his strokes. The top-spin allows him to create very acute angles and push an opponent off the tramlines with consistency, even from midcourt.

His inside-out forehand is pretty much the weapon that he uses for the kill. Flat, pacy, and line-tracing, it is a deadly weapon. Many a time, he combines the crosscourt and the inside-out in a 1-2 combination to punch out a winner.

His backhand is solid, and he employs his cross-court backhand to pull the trigger a lot of times, and when he does that there is nothing much you can do about it. He doesn't go for the kill with the down-the-line backhand, however, but he puts a lot of depth and spin on that one.

Nadal can play with both breath-taking defence and extreme offence. He is fast on the ground, and has excellent retrieval skills, on many occasions, placing the ball in a disadvantageous position for the opponent. Using a combination of speed, spin, and power Rafa can pass his opponents with impunity.

Del Potro on the other hand, is an offensive base-liner. He likes to stay near the line and hit clean, and flat(ter) strokes. But this is not to say that he doesn't impart spin to his strokes. His ground game is solid and lacks any real weaknesses. With a strong forehand and backhand he is difficult to beat off the ground.

He feasts on anything a foot short and over the height of the net. His forward movement on these strokes is very visible. He seems to throw his weight on the ball, his momentum aiding the stroke play. This approach means that he is quick to take the upper-hand in a rally at the slightest advantage.

What is suspect is his ability to move. Given his height he is a good mover, but it is still difficult to switch directions on the run if you are tall. His on-the-run play doesn't match up to Nadal's.

Del Potro has a solid service being very tall. And if he lands a lot of his first deliveries, it is going to be difficult to beat him since he will go for a winner on the next. This holds even for Nadal who is among the best when it comes to preventing aces. He has solid volleying skills at the net too.

Nadal's serves are not his primary weapon. He employs the body serve well on the deuce-court, and can get unbelievable angles on the ad-court with his spin. His serve sets up his forehand. Nadal has greatly improved his volleying skills, and has an acute sense of point-construction. Though small in number, he normally comes out on top of his net approaches.


Nadal Will Win If...

He plays like Nadal. But don't get me wrong, it is difficult even for him to do that.

He must keep his service games short. He seems to have a strain in the abdomen, which could worsen if he has to put in a lot of serves. To keep them short, he needs to pull the trigger a bit earlier than normal on his fore-hand side. Perhaps he could volley a bit more too.

One myth should be dispelled here. Apparently being a tall guy means del Potro will feast on Nadal's top-spin forehands. Not so fast. Not all of them.

There are two factors here: One is del Potro's height, and the other is the depth of the Nadal forehand.

If Nadal lands his top-spinners, say a metre or two inside the base-line, then he is committing suicide. Del Potro can get over the ball, and hence blunt the top-spin, sending the ball for a winner at un-gettable angles, even for Nadal.

But let's say Nadal lands them close to the base-line like he normally does, then the angle-of-attack of the ball on the climb will be pretty difficult to deal with if you are trying to take it on the rise. So, del Potro will be pushed behind a bit.

Even then he is better placed to deal with these compared to other shorter players, but then hitting out-right winners won't happen on them time and again. People don't hit out-right winners on the back-foot.

It is safe to assume here that the rally will go on without a big shift in balance in such a case, but with a small advantage for Nadal, especially if del Potro is on the run.

So Nadal should use his mainstay—the top-spin forehand but pushing it close to the base-line. But if he needs to return short, he better use a flatter one, or if he cannot execute it without taking too much pace off it, use a slice that stays low.

Creating the angle with his cross-court forehand and pulling the trigger with his inside-out is another strategy that could be effectively employed. Given that del Potro doesn't like to move that much, Nadal need not be very clinical on the inside-out too.

On the backhand side, his down-the-line backhand which used to be suspect for short deliveries seems to have improved, but given that his cross-court is a better weapon, perhaps that should be tried more, except when he is on the back-foot.

The backhand slice, if it stays low will trouble the tall man, and Nadal could try some volleys on those as well.

The bottom line here is that if Nadal plays a solid ground game, avoiding Del-Potro's strengths, he can win the match.


Nadal Will Lose If...

If he lets del Potro take confidence from a good start, it could add on to his self-belief in his ability to beat the Mallorcan, which has been on the rise for some time now.

Nadal should not play too defensively like he did in Miami. He is not just a counter- puncher in this match.

If that happens, this will lead del Potro to go for winners with flat, clean strikes. Such balls bounce low and have a fast horizontal movement, which means that Nadal will get less setup to play these strokes.

Finally this could lead Nadal to avoid errors by going for shorter strokes which again will fuel Del-Potro's strokes.

He should at all cost avoid another abdominal strain by closing out his service games quickly.



Nadal seems to be in good form with a lot of calm and composure unlike what we saw of him when he bowed out of competition two months back. He seems to be playing without worrying much about his knees.

At the same time, he has had very little match-practice coming in. It could well happen that while Nadal's A-game would be sufficient, he may not be able to put the execution together. Adding to it the fact that he has not passed a test against any player in the top six, we can all but speculate about his chances here.

To put it simple, Nadal can win the match, but that just may not happen given the circumstances. It might be a bit too early to expect success of him.

But let's hope that he has played himself back into form for this big test.


Shots to look out for

The Nadal down-the-line on-the-run forehand pass and his ripping backhand crosscourt winners.

Del Potro's—what can you call it?—jump-backhands.



Predictions go against causality.



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