How to Win: Lessons in Tennis from Rafael Nadal

Rajat JainSenior Analyst IMay 4, 2010

ROME - MAY 02:  Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates winning against David Ferrer of Spain in the final during day eight of the ATP Masters Series - Rome at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 2, 2010 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Ian Walton/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal was in personal turmoil last year with his parents being separated. He was in professional turmoil with a severe tendinitis injury in his knees, which surfaced at the Roland Garros ’09 and threatened again at Melbourne in ’10 with his premature retirement against Andy Murray. Most importantly, the “W”s next to his name were missing as he went title-less for 11 months—the longest period he has gone on without winning one.

Yet, cometh the clay season, and Rafael Nadal has dropped just a single set in 12 matches, has scored three victories while losing just a single game, pummeled Fernando Verdasco, 6-0, 6-1 in the finals of Monte Carlo, and won back to back Masters titles equaling Andre Agassi as the most prolific player in the Masters Series with 17 shields each. So what is it about clay that springs up the level of play of the Spaniard and transforms his game into an unstoppable force?

The style of play is obviously the major part of the reason, but that aside the most important part of this turnaround is Nadal’s comfort level at the red turf, which directly translates into confidence. One would remember the ease with which he dispatched Thomas Berdych in the Davis Cup finals on clay after failing to win even a single set in his three ties at the Year End finals last year.

Nadal is feeling confident and comfortable.

And once the confidence is back, Rafa picks out his trump card of which no opponent has a counter answer—his ability to know how to win matches. And surprisingly, Nadal has more weapons than any player in history when it comes to knowing how to win matches.

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Pete Sampras did a fine job of winning matches relying on holding his serve and edging out one return game here or there to win even when his opponent was going ballistic at him on ground strokes. Roger Federer uses his fear factor and reputation to make his opponent go weak on his knees when he is playing badly and the opponent is firing on all cylinders—remember Thomas Berdych, Igor Andreev, or Janko Tipsarvic?

Rafael Nadal, apparently, can do both. Win matches even when he is being made to run all corners against an opponent riding high on form, and using the fear factor or raising his level at opportune times when playing much below his best. It just took the final two matches of the Rome Masters against Ernets Gulbis and David Ferrer to demonstrate these two distinct traits.

There was one similar key moment in both these victories. Against Gulbis, that moment came at 15-30 on his serve at 3-3 in the deciding set, and against Ferrer it came at 5-5 in the opening set.

Gulbis was playing the match of his life after becoming the first player this season to take a set off Nadal on clay riding high on a super human level of serving, monstrous forehand, and McEnroesque hands at the net before he probably realized that he was marginally away from becoming the first player to defeat Federer and Nadal in the same tournament on clay.

He had a slight opportunity at 15-30 up on Nadal’s serve and then it happened. He attempted a drop shot on a high short ball right in his hitting zone and netted it. A 15-40 and two potential match points became 30-30 and Rafa managed to hold on to a tough 4-3 lead, but Gulbis—who had served an unprecedented 15 out of 15 first serves in the final set—forgot how to land his first ball in. He didn’t land a single first serve in his final two service games, committed a double fault and a couple of forehand errors as Rafa marched on to the final in jubilation.

He again found himself in trouble in the final against Ferrer’s flat and accurate ground strokes—especially his inside out forehand—and was living dangerously. As it happened, he raised his game to win an outrageously battled point (linked below) lunging forward and backward, even surviving a let cord during the point to totally dishearten his opponent, and later finding a couple of massive forehand winners—something he hadn’t found at all during the day—at 5-5 on Ferrer’s serve. Once he broke through with the first set, though, he found his level-A game and ramped through the remaining match also being helped by the slower conditions due to the rain.

More than the two back to back titles, though, Nadal would be extremely pleased by the way he was able to close out the matches despite playing below his best, something he was unable to do earlier in the year against Nikolay Davydenko (Doha), Ivan Ljubicic (Indian Wells), and Andy Roddick (Miami) when he was close to his peak form. And this would be the most important factor that Nadal will carry forward during his march to reclaim his lost title at Paris.

Aided by the terrible forms of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the injury of Juan Martin del Potro, Roger Federer’s unpredictable form—which we will only know once the French Open commences—and the relative ineptness of the other top ten players on clay, the King of Clay and the four time Roland Garros champion finds himself as the overwhelming favorite to bite the Coupe des Mousquetaires for the fifth time barring another unfortunate injury.

Nadal, however, knows he is not fully at his best—not until he can fire his flat cross court backhand winners—and despite his successful test against Gulbis, who played more like a world’s top player than the one ranked 40, he is yet to score a victory against a top-10 player this year. Moreover, French Open played relatively faster last year, resembling more like Rome than Monte Carlo with its surface speed, and he would be happy with his title here.

His, and Federer’s, performance at the upcoming Madrid Masters will play an important part in the predictions leading up to the French Open. For despite the playing field opening up in the last few months, these two players remain the only favorites for the ultimate clay court prize.