Rafael Nadal's game has come miles after the disaster it was last year. And it is radically different from what we have ever seen.
Today against A-Rod, during the match, they showed stats of his shot-placement. If you draw a line midway between the service line and the baseline, it is that line where the depth of his ground strokes averaged around. Where they were short, they mostly hit the sidelines as well, creating some of those acute angles.
Another stat they showed was the forehand winner count. I remember Roddick having a "0" by his name.
Well, that was before the Roddick played like Pete Sampras midway through the second set.
Roddick essentially pressed that same "button" which Robin Soderling found, and this year, Davydenko, Ljubicic, and Murray to an extend (well, Murray has a different control panel) pressed. And most of them have had to play their best tennis to find the button, and press it.
What is this button, anyway?
Nadal has been taking the ball earlier after his return from tendonitis. His backhand could always take them on half-volleys, but his forehand with that convoluted bicep-crushing swing has always needed more time. He has reduced it to a large extend. But it is still more than an easier swing, a less top-spin generating, more-to-the-east swing.
It is an inherent weakness in that stroke, and there is nothing you could do about it. It is there and it is there to stay. Hitting hard on his forehand, angled, low over the net, and deep has been the key. That is the button—reduce height, reduce setup.
It was easier for most players for most of last season, because Nadal's strokes sat up begging to be hit that way, making you feel guilty if you did not. But this year, he has been doing much better, and it has been much more difficult. Which is why when he lost, the scores have been closer, and the opponents have had to play way out of their comfort zones, first from the baseline and then from the net.
And once it is done three or four times, a tipping point is reached and the match starts titling the other way. While it has never been an avalanche, the subtle shift in momentum is pretty visible.
Last year when this happened, he used to back down a couple of meters. This year he is not doing that. But there are left-overs. For one, his body language shows surprise, which feeds to his opponent's belief.
For another, he doesn't stand up to his opponent soon enough when the opponent steps it up. He seems to be contemplating the effectiveness of his game on fast courts—as if admitting to himself that the way he plays will never overcome the way the opponent plays at that point, on a hard-court.
He seems clueless. And this seems more plausible since he doesn't change anything in his game as the match progresses. It is as if a, "what else can I do?" mindset sets in. The guys believe that they can do it over and over against him. And he sort of tells them that if they do, he can only run around retrieving balls.
To give Nadal credit, he has honed his game as much as possible as his style of play allows him to, to increase the opponents' risk in going for the area that is his weakness, which is why in some cases they went after his second serve rather than his ground strokes to reach that tipping point, and reducing stress on his knees.
As he says, no one can ask him to do more than what he can possibly do. And he seems to be doing the right things as far as his game is concerned.
Other than his forehand which is firing both cross-court and down-the-line at will, his backhand is also gaining that ferociousness of old. At one point of time, Nadal could setup points for his cross-court backhand with his forehand. Though it has not yet quite reached that level of morale-killing best, it still ranks among the best back-hands in business.
He is serving better, though the percentages are a bit lower. He can impart more pace and variety now. Also he has become a legitimate volleyer. A few lunging drop-volleys stand testimony to this. He even teamed up with Marc Lopez to win the doubles title in Indian Wells against the No. 1 team in the world.
So what is he doing wrong? Nothing is wrong with his homework. And his execution during larger parts of even the matches that he lost has been as good as he has ever played.
Why isn't he winning? It is probably a combination of things. Guys are finding ways to factor his strengths out of the game. One must remember that all the four of them had excellent days at the serving office in those matches; that they played some of their best tennis ever to beat him. In short it is probably not going to happen very consistently for any single player.
Another reason of course is himself. The pressure of not having won a title in almost a year, and his self-belief on hardcourts could definitely be affecting him. But he has to put those behind if he is to continue holding that crown of "the greatest competitor in sports." Greatest competitors shouldn't care that they have not won in years, let alone a few months; hell they shouldn't care that much about winning itself.
Looking ahead, the bull must see red. He has not been doing very well recently after falling back. He still has the best game on clay. Hence, clay will allow him to pull ahead earlier and more consistently, thus allowing him to play more tension free. His first title could come in the next few months. And there is no court suited to his game better than Philippe Chatrier.
The story of Nadal this year has seen him put in all the physical elements in place. Now comes the, perhaps more difficult, mental game.
Is the greatest competitor of the game up to it?