How Did Rafael Nadal Finally Reach the Top? Tennis Unplugged (Roundtable 1)

Tennis RT Tennis UnpluggedCorrespondent IAugust 5, 2008

Finally, it's up online: the first Tennis Roundtable of the Bleacher Community. The question for our first RT could not get more topical. Enjoy it!

Thanks to each one of you (Alby, Tyler, Mike, Todd, Sarah, Marc, jb, Josh, and Burton). Its a little long this time around, next time, we would set a word cap.

Rafael Nadal winning in Toronto last week, combined with Roger Federer losing in the second round, Rafa has an opportunity to take the No.1 ranking next week in Cincinnati? (As we speak, it is confirmed that he will topple Federer in the rankings next week). What has been the most important factor this year in Nadal’s game that has provided him with such an opportunity, which he did not have the previous four years?


Alby Jnr.

Rafa Nadal's improvement goes hand-in-hand with Federer's tailspin for me.

The year isn't over yet, but it's been mostly no-go for Roger and lovely for Rafa. The buzz since Wimbledon 2007 was that Rafa had improved on grass a lot more than Federer had on clay, and this year definitely proved that.

You win less when your rivals catch up to you, and if you don't do something special, they surpass you. Federer has a lot of work to do to keep Rafa from consolidating his position.

Sure, the odds are that Rafa's body won't hold out for very long, but someone who's been No. 1 for so long like Federer won't be content to wait it out.

So far he hasn't done well against Rafa, either by his own strategy, or with that of Roche and Higueras. In the Wimbledon final, the single most effective shot he had was his big off forehand to the ad court, because his serve was on and off.

In previous years he'd mostly try to avoid Nadal's forehand, but he definitely went there with the off forehand and won a lot of points; it was great to see him use it.

As always when he plays Rafa, he had lots of chances to break; at one time he would. But no more; he gets too tight, and Rafa has improved too much.

It's a quandary. We've seen power hitters trouble Rafa on non-clay surfaces, but no one can do it every time.

We've seen that no one's topspin can compete with his; getting a ball past him is a major achievement. He hits killer angles, and he can hurt you from anywhere on court.

Rafa deserves a lot of credit. But aside from the topspin, we can say the very same things about Federer. It's just that the topspin is such a big weapon. It's Rafa's sine qua non.

If growing a few inches, suddenly adding 20 mph to his serve or more topspin isn't in the cards for Federer, what can he do? I think it comes down mostly to his head. I know it's good enough against 99 percent of his opponents, but here's something he can and must work on against Rafa.

Where did his serve go for most of the Wimbledon final, for instance? Where did his head go for all those break chances he's had against Rafa in various matches?

Big thanks...


Tyler Charles

To me, it can only be one thing.  Nadal has worked hard this past year to become a better player on all of the surfaces, and it is this hard work, coupled with his growing mental toughness, that has put him in the position to become the first man since Andy Roddick in 2003 to hold No. 1 and not be named Roger Federer.

Coming into the 2008 season, Rafael Nadal was predominantly known as a clay court specialist. However, if one had watched Nadal’s results in 2007, one would realize that Nadal was becoming a more complete player on grass, with his two straight final appearances at Wimbledon.

Nadal has also shown vast improvement on the hardcourts in 2008, appearing as a semifinalist at the Australian Open and winning the Canadian Masters.

If you take a look at Nadal’s results over the past four years, you will see a trend of constant improvement in the areas of grass court and hard court play, as well as increased play on these surfaces. 


Grass Court

2005: 1-2

2006: 8-2

2007: 8-2

2008: 12-0


Hard Court

2005: 28-6

2006: 25-10

2007: 31-12

2008: 27-6

In addition, a look at his clay court records over the same span of time shows that Nadal is playing in fewer clay court tournaments.


Clay Court

2005: 50-2

2006: 26-0

2007: 31-1

2008: 22-1

Now, I realize that this does not necessarily mean that he is taking time off from the clay courts to work on his game on other surfaces, but one can make the argument that he is allowing extra training time to improve his shot-making abilities on grass and hard courts. 

It is this kind of dedication to his game that has allowed Nadal to increase his playing ability on other surfaces, thus leading to a better record in the tournaments he is entering. 

A look at winning percentages shows that in 2005, Nadal won 89 percent of his matches, and in 2008, he won 90 percent. That doesn't look like much of a difference, until you take into account the previous statistics. 

Not only has his increased attention to the other surfaces helped his game improve, but the mental and physical maturity of Rafael Nadal has put him into position to become No. 1. 

I believe one largely overlooked fact about Nadal is that he is only 22 years old.  It is not unheard of to be young on the ATP tour, but when you take into account that only Mats Wilander, Andre Agassi, and Pete Sampras were as successful as Rafael Nadal had been in his teen years, he is in elite company. 

Mentally, Nadal has progressed greatly in the last four years, and that is evidenced in his ability to win matches in the fourth and fifth set.  Only three times in the past two years has Nadal not made it to the quarterfinals of a major tournament.

Take a look at Wimbledon from this year, and you will see for yourself the mental stability Nadal has gained since last season.  He was finally able to break through the barrier and defeat Roger Federer on his “home turf”. 

He had opportunities to fold and let Roger take back the match, but Rafa repeatedly rose to the occasion and smothered the attack by Federer.

Nadal’s physique is key to his success.  Roger Federer may be the epitome of tennis grace, but Rafael Nadal makes no mistake in being one of the most well-defined men in tennis.  Add quick feet and large arms to an already premier tennis player and you have quite a specimen. 

It is quite obvious that Nadal has added some muscle over the last four years, and it has improved his ability to return shots that would have ended up in the net.  Having the ability to flick your arm and make your opponent try to hit a passing shot puts more pressure on the opponent to make a great shot, and doing this wins Nadal extra points. 

As proven once again at Wimbledon of this year, Nadal is working with increased stamina as well.  More often than not, he is outlasting opponents on long points, and is making his opponent work more in order to win the point.  His ability to survive grueling points only adds to his superior playing ability.

The two reasons Rafael Nadal could be No. 1 in the world in the next fortnight or so? His increasing ability to play on different surfaces, and his natural maturity as a player.


Mike Griffin

I think the big improvement in Rafa's game is how he attacks the ball, and takes so many risks during his game. He seems to attack all the time, and simply refuses to go defensive.

He picks out any flaw he can see, whether he is on his serve or looking to break serve. He pinpoints that flaw and executes a breathtaking shot to win the point.
He has improved so much on all surfaces over the last two years, and deserves to be world number one, when that time comes.
Cheers for the opportunity
Nice one mate. Michael


Todd Reilly

The success that Rafael Nadal has had this season is not a result of major changes in his game but of consistency and confidence.

Nadal has always had an amazing baseline game and he uses that strategy to wear down opponents. He can hammer the ball from the baseline and run down your return with his speed.

Nadal may be the best all-round player in the world because of it. However, Nadal has made minor changes that may be responsible for him possibly capturing No. 1 in the world.
This season, the biggest change I have noticed is that the Spaniard has incorporated a more offensive strategy to his game plan.

Nadal, who has been defensive in year's past, still relies on his baseline game but has incorporated more net drive giving his opponents one more weapon to worry about.

In addition to his more offensive court presence, Nadal has substantially improved his volleying ability, arguably his worst shot in years past, giving him all the required weapons to be a champion for years to come.
The major reason for his recent success comes from his mindset on the court. Nadal still uses his ability to wear down opponents with long rallies and overpowering shots but with a more offensive mindset, as well as his growing confidence that he can win outside of the clay surface.

He has been able to take two majors this season and is poised to capture No. 1 in the world.   
Overall, they are minor changes but still notable improvements to what was already an outstanding player.
Todd Reilly


Sarah (Saraswathi Sirigina)

"Destiny favors a few" is a statement I never believed in, but in recent days Rafael Nadal is the golden child of tennis.

He is not the one to term, 'grass is for cows" and sure enough that grass never let him down, and gave him the most coveted Wimbledon crown. Has he been Mr. Consistent, Mr. Steady Performer? Well, all that and more.

Rafa had blazed a trail of victories with cool and level-headed poise. 2008 is perhaps the one year where we have seen Rafael Nadal play his best tennis, yet and will perhaps be the beginning of the Nadal era in tennis.

On the other hand, Roger Federer, though did not term clay is for moulds or something to that tune, finds himself let down by the clay under his feet in the French. But that is not all!

This year, Roger looked a shadow of his former self. His game unraveled before our eyes. That mysterious serve, that grace all vanished into thin air, while Roger fumbled with missed volleys, unforced errors and bad returns.

The key is not that Roger lost his form while Rafa found his best - the key perhaps is that one man is the slow climber (Rafa) while the other man (Roger) had lost his love for the game.

Don't get me wrong, but what I see in Roger Federer is the "responsibility" and "duty"—a burden to be the best—it seems like he is carrying a 1000-ton weight on his slim shoulders and hence, that game of tennis he plays is no more about tennis but about being in the record books.

I think Roger psyched himself too much into a corner thinking that he will not be considered the best if he does not win the French Crown and that no matter what people say, but that he will never be on par with Rod Laver unless he wins it. That must have weighed more on his mind than his game or playing the game.

Rafael Nadal seems to be living to his potential and seems to have come into his own. He seems to just love his game more and more, and be willing to explore it, to take it a few notches higher.


Marc Kaveh

Rafael Nadal has turned the tables on Roger Federer in a dramatic way. The Spaniard destroyed Federer even more than usual at Paris before stealing the Wimbledon crown.

There are many reasons for Rafa's dominance. He has successfully transferred his backhand from the clay to grass, with devastating effect.

Many shots he made against Murray were unbelievable and that backhand pass against Federer in that match.

His first serve is faster than before and his second serve is more reliable and puts him in better positions. More than that, he has the belief that he is better then Federer on grass. In 2006 and 2007, he was happy to be in the final. In 2008, he 100 percent believed he could do it, even when he lost his match points. Advantage: Rafael Nadal.



In brief, I'd say his serve first.  Its no longer a liability, and he gets a lot more cheap points. Next, his willingness to move in and attack; again ending more points early.

Look at the times of his matches from three years ago and this year, he's spending significantly less time on court. This saves his energy and the wear and tear on his knees.


Josh Millar

Before you talk about Nadal’s game you have to talk a little bit about Federer’s fall.  As great as the Wimbledon final was, I don’t think we’ve seen both men playing at their peaks.

For Nadal, so much of his improvement is confidence, being able to bring his clay court game to other surfaces consistently as he showed on grass. Although, he has yet to be tested on hard courts.

Then, there’s his work ethic. The guy may practice as hard as he plays, and nobody plays harder then Nadal.


Burton DeWitt (The Wayne Arthurs Fan)

First off, kudos to Rafael Nadal. While I've never rooted for him against Roger Federer, I have always respected the energy and heart he has brought to the court. 

Now, I think this question is fairly obvious. In Wimbledon 2007, Nadal averaged 10 mph less per first serve than he did during 2008. That's significant. Even though he only had six aces in the final in 2008, that was still five more than he had in 2007.

The increased power also allowed Nadal to be in control of the service point from the start, not just on the grass at Wimbledon, but also on hard courts.

Nadal, who can be painfully defensive at times on the red clay, is remarkably aggressive and offensive now on hard courts and on grass, using his serve to set up an attacking ground stroke to put away the point early.

The development of his hard court game, which still is by far his weakest of the three major surfaces, has put him in position to reach the No. 1 ranking before the US Open.

With every reason to believe he is going to continue to get better, he could soon become the world's top hard court player, even with the rising talent of Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer.

That said, let me dispel one widespread rumor: Federer's best surface is not grass; it is hard courts.

Federer rose to prominence as all the grass court specialists reached the twilight of their careers. Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic, Pat Rafter? They were all over the hill.

Only now are there a few on the rise, such as Andy Murray and Richard Gasquet, in addition to Nadal. Federer has played in an era with many talented and consistent hard court players and yet has been able to consistently dominate almost all of them.

David Nalbandian, Marcos Baghdatis, Lleyton Hewitt, and Nikolay Davydenko have all been top hard court players, but none could take down Federer when it counted. The only person to defeat a healthy Federer at a hard court slam over the past five years is Marat Safin, arguably the most naturally gifted player of the decade. 

With that in mind, until Nadal can knock off Federer at the US Open or the Australian Open, he will still be the underdog in those events. But with his quicker serve and more aggressive strategy, there's no reason to believe he won't be able to give Federer and the other established hard court players a run for their money. Maybe he'll even bite the trophy at Flushing Meadows.


Long John Silver

What has been the biggest difference in Rafa Nadal’s game this season, when compared to the previous four?

His serve is the biggest factor that has helped him finally get to the top of the table. The benefits of improving his serve have been multi-fold:

1.      He wins his games more easily.

2.      He shortens the points, consequently working less for each point.

3.      By holding easier, HE exerts more pressure on the opponent’s serve game.

His ability to venture into dark unknown corners, and learn the game; learn how to play on grass courts and hard courts is also very admirable.

Serve and Continuous Improvement have been the two biggest factors in his rise to the top.


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