What Rafael Nadal Can Do to Regain the No.1 Ranking from Novak Djokovic
Barring the French Open and the Monte Carlo Masters titles this year, it hasn't been a positively eventful year for Rafael Nadal.
It's certainly not what we'd come to expect after having seen him blast through to the US Open championship last year.
And now that we're closing on another one starting on Monday, things have not been going smoothly of late for the defending champion.
Novak Djokovic, his prime rival these days, has been inflicting a series of heart breaks on him. Nadal has lost five times to him this year, and in the process, has also conceded his No.1 ranking.
So, what could he possibly do to dethrone Djokovic and make his ascend to the top again?
Let's take a look at several options.
End Points Faster
When Nadal launches into a point, he bears the mentality of a guy who wants to get into a long rally. He gets himself settled into the point and looks for an opening, after which he goes for the attack.
This is not at all an inadequate approach. In fact, he's won 10 slams with this strategy.
But, if he wants to usurp Djokovic from the top, he's got to pull back on the incessant rallying and instead take a few calculated risks to try and finish the point as early as possible.
Flatten the Balls
Nadal's game is based on a great deal of moon balling, and he seems to use this approach to get players out of their natural balance.
It works against almost everyone at the moment, but not Djokovic. Against Djokovic, this ball will be smacked back onto Rafa's court with further added pace. To add fuel to the fire, Djokovic's ability to take a high ball on the rise further reduces the effectiveness of this strategy.
A better approach for Nadal would be to flatten the ball and, in the process, generate more pace.
Moon Ball with Depth
But alas, Nadal cannot strike every ball just barely above the net.
So what could he do to generate a more effective moon ball?
The solution is to send it deeper inside the court.
By pushing Djokovic, or any other player for that matter, further behind the baseline, Nadal could not only get more time but could also expect a moderately weaker reply to negotiate the next shot.
Improve the Return of Serve
A very neglected aspect in Nadal's game has to be his return of service. It's probably one of his weakest links in the chain, but one that's mostly unnoticed.
He does not seem to put any effort whatsoever on executing a winning return off either of the serves from the opponent.
As alluded to in a previous slide, he begins to calibrate himself to a "let's get the rally going" mode.
An improvement here could give him more chances to take the initiative to attack a little earlier than he would like.
Hit More Inside-out Forehands
The inside-out forehand.
It's a shot that Nadal executes perfectly, but one that he doesn't use that often.
If he can try to position himself to deliver this perfect killer shot on many more points, he could end them faster and also force the opponent to try other options.
Improve the Second Serve
In all of the matches between Djokovic and Nadal this year, one stat that has clearly had Rafa at a disadvantage has been the return points won.
There's no doubt that it has cost him lots of opportunities. Djokovic seems to win, on average, almost seven out of 10 points on Nadal's second serve.
If Nadal could generate a more formidable second serve, it could help his cause a great deal.
Play Fewer Tournaments
Here's a typical pattern that Nadal's mid-season always falls into.
He heads into the French Open playing pretty much all of the tournaments he can on clay. He wins them all, including the French Open, and carries the momentum forward to Wimbledon, where he performs fantastically. Then it all goes downhill from there.
Play less and preserve energy for the second half of the season.
Hang Around Until Djokovic Begins to Decline
If none of the previous options seem to work, the only alternative Nadal's got is to wait for Djokovic to renounce his super-human powers.
Things are not going to change any time soon, and Nadal will certainly look to change certain tactics and strategies, especially to counter Djokovic.
We will probably not see any changes this season, but it sure will be interesting to see what improvements Nadal makes as he heads into 2012.
All we've got to do is to wait and watch.
At the same time, I don't believe that Nadal's going to fade away any time soon, at least not without giving a resilient fight to Djokovic.