Rafael Nadal has never been one to make wholesale changes to his game, so hiring coach Carlos Moya was about as surprising as unleashing a topspin forehand. But these are desperate times for the 14-time Grand Slam winner who is hoping for a few more big titles before the sun sets on his fading career.
Moya, age 40, will join forces with Nadal’s Uncle Toni, who has coached him since childhood. Moya was briefly the No. 1 player and the 1998 French Open champion but soon became familiar with 16-year-old Nadal when he lost their first contest at Hamburg in 2003. They played eight career matches (Nadal won six) and were heroic Davis Cup teammates in defeating the Americans in the 2004 final.
Tapping Moya to coach is more like convincing his elder brother to move back home and save the family business. Always close-knit with a small inner circle, Nadal did not feel the need to reach beyond their native Mallorca, let alone find a different kind of messenger far from the confines of proud Spanish culture and tennis.
Will this partnership be the answer to rejuvenate Nadal’s final chances at a Grand Slam title? Or is it too much of the same flavor, too little and too late?
Effects of the Supercoaches
In recent years, Nadal’s rivals have looked at former star players to advance their careers. These “Supercoaches” have all had positive results in one way or another, providing an extra boost or outlook that opened up important opportunities.
- Andy Murray’s original partnership with Ivan Lendl from 2012-14 helped the Scot become more aggressive with his forehand and play with greater mental toughness. Their reunion prior to Wimbledon 2016 was another burst of adrenaline for Murray that helped drive him to the No. 1 ranking for the first time. This partnership is the gold standard.
- Novak Djokovic, already a six-time major winner, enlisted Boris Becker from 2014-16. Becker helped Djokovic make his serve into a weapon, but perhaps his greatest asset was adding more competitive fire and greater mental toughness to his protege. Djokovic responded with perhaps the greatest run of dominance in the Open era.
- Roger Federer worked with Stefan Edberg, and he was able to refine his net attack and create shorter points. He got to three major finals but ran into a younger and better Djokovic each time. It was still a reward that paid off.
- Stan Wawrinka got more than a personality transplant from Magnus Norman. His newfound confidence and fearless demeanor in big matches drove him to three major titles in three years. It’s one of the great late-career transformations in tennis history.
- Milos Raonic had Moya for the past year, and there was significant improvements with his backhand and greater precision with his groundstrokes. Raonic got to the Wimbledon final and a career-high No. 3 ranking before the partnership mutually dissolved last month.
The Wonder Twins Moya and Nadal
What would Nadal gain in adding Moya? Technically speaking, Moya’s game foreshadowed much of Nadal’s style, albeit with far less intensity and without the bludgeoning lefty topspin and speedy footwork of his younger Mallorcan counterpart. He could wind up his forehand and follow-through with more of a circular sweep than Nadal’s more vertical follow-through.
Moya even rocked and leaned with that stiff kind of lean that Nadal uses, a bit more unorthodox and certainly not on par with an elite server like Federer or Pete Sampras. Moya’s not going to help that area unless he’s able to smooth out some of Nadal’s hitch.
But there’s little that Moya can do to restore Nadal’s youthful speed and weary knees. The young, prime Nadal will live on with digital replays, but his laboring decline has been ongoing for a few years.
That doesn’t mean Moya can’t help Nadal create more power, depth and angles with his forehand. Nadal simply cannot outgrind his opposition with a more diminished weapon that no longer hits through the court the way it once did. These years, his opponents are more likely to hit bigger and bolder. Moya might be able to help Nadal use his muscular legs and trunk to generate more of his own big strokes.
Furthermore, Moya the player was effective at using both corners of the court and he will need to help Nadal’s backhand and forehand produce added variety of height and spin. At the least, he must help Nadal produce greater depth with his groundstrokes.
Most of all, Moya will need to be more than friend and big brother. Can he inspire new energy in practice sessions? Will he be a new voice of influence and composure to help Nadal get back that mental edge that used to strike fear through the ATP tour?
There’s also a possibility that Moya could help pace Nadal and diminish some of the effects with his aging and injuries. Nadal will need his wrist to be completely healthy and his legs to be as fresh.
Some changes could pay immediate dividends next month in Australia. Coaches almost always inject a supportive boost for the first few months or more, a honeymoon period of belief and hope in new success. Then, Nadal and Moya will see if their groundwork can pay off by the time Monte Carlo rolls around in April. That’s when it will either boom or bust.
The Moya hire is a good try if nothing else, and it could prove to be a spectacular success. If Nadal is able to reach back to something resembling 2014, he could once again be that superstar who fought hard to extend his greatness, even while the warning light has been flashing red.