Tennis Player of The Year: Rafael Nadal

Rob YorkSenior Writer INovember 9, 2008

What does Rafael Nadal do better than Roger Federer?

There must be something, considering that Nadal has won 12 of their 18 meetings. Yet, when you match their strengths against one another, it’s still not an easy question to answer.

The keys to Nadal’s successes have been his heavy forehand, his movement and his defense. Federer, however, is considered to be one of the best, if not the best in all of these areas.

Furthermore, the Fed’s serve and volleys are clearly better than Nadal’s, and while both can hit over their backhands just fine, Federer also has that neutralizing slice backhand that Nadal lacks.

So, how has Nadal won against the Fed 66 percent of the time? Yes, part of the answer is that most of their matches are on clay, the surface where Nadal is most at home and Federer is least. The Swiss has been highly competitive on the dirt, while the Spaniard hasn’t always been so on the faster surfaces which the Fed prefers.

Still, why has Nadal won nine out of 10 matches against Federer on this surface since 2005? In that period, the Fed has lost only three clay court matches to someone other than Nadal: Richard Gasquet in Monte Carlo 2005, Filippo Volandri in Rome 2007, and Radek Stepanek in Rome 2007.

And, while Federer may have an easier time with Nadal on other surfaces, he’s still lost three matches against him on hard and grass courts since 2004. Only Andy Murray and David Nalbandian can equal that success against the Swiss on the faster surfaces.

The truth is that there are no players on tour who can match Federer shot for shot, save perhaps Marat Safin at his very best, who cannot match him step for step.

Players like Murray and Nalbandian have been able to bother him with their counterpunching, guile and ability to use an opponent’s pace against him.

Nadal has been even more effective because he has something they don’t: that wicked forehand. While Federer’s is widely considered the best in the game in terms of pace and variety, Nadal’s forehand seems to trouble Federer more than vice-versa.

Because he’s a lefty, he can launch his heavy forehands at the Fed’s backhand, causing them to bounce up high in a way that’s difficult to handle for anyone with a one-handed backhand.

While players such as Federer and Fernando Gonzalez have forehands regularly described as “awesome” and “big,” the forehand of Nadal is regularly described in negatives like “brutal” and “nasty,” because opponents mis-time it and struggle to deal with its spin.

Some players, like James Blake, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych have pile-driver motions on the forehands, which allow them to hit through Nadal’s spin. As a result, they’ve scored big wins over the Spaniard even as Federer, the game’s most complete player, has struggled.

Federer isn’t the only one, of course: Marcos Baghdatis once told the press that he enjoyed playing against the Swiss, but said “I just can't play against Nadal. I'm not able to return.”

This helps to explain Nadal’s success against the greatest player who has ever played the game. It also helps to explain why Federer’s toughest match at this year’s U.S. Open was against Igor Andreev, whose forehand is hit with a similar motion to the Spaniard’s; a shot Baghdatis once compared to Nadal’s.

From 2004-2007, Federer had four incredible seasons in a row, any one of which would have been a career year for most players. Until this year, it seemed Nadal was designated to be the fly in the Fed’s ointment, keeping him from dominating all season long, but unable to match the Swiss’ year-long performance.

In fact, when he went without a title from August 2007 to April 2008, many wondered if even spoiler status was slipping away.

What they missed was the fact that Nadal was reaching the latter rounds consistently on surfaces that weren’t his best, before falling to a hot hand.

In the fall of ’07, it was Nalbandian in Paris and Federer in Shanghai. In the spring of ’08, it was Tsonga at the Australian Open, Roddick in Dubai, Djokovic in Indian Wells and Davydenko in Miami. A change of surfaces was bound to change his results for the better.

It certainly did: Capping another dominant clay season, Nadal won his fourth Roland Garros, losing not one set. It was the most dominant Grand Slam result since Bjorn Borg’s wins in Paris in 1980 and 1978.

Some might argue that Nadal’s was even more impressive, as Borg was never battering someone like Federer in the finals.

After that came his first grass court title in Queens, then his first Wimbledon title, vanquishing Federer in a match whose epic qualities, at the time, seemed to defy all superlatives.

And, unlike in past seasons, he wasn’t out of the picture after Wimbledon: He won another Masters’ Series event on the hard courts of Canada, and at the Beijing Olympics gave tennis fans another gift: credibility.

This is not meant to diminish the achievements of past gold medalists like Marc Rosset, Nicolas Massu or Miloslav Mecir (not to mention Andre Agassi and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who took the gold in years where they otherwise underperformed).

Seeing Nadal take top Olympic honors in the very week he took the No. 1 ranking, however, will silence many of those who question whether tennis should be in the Olympics. Then, to top it off, he helped Spain reach the Davis Cup final.

As usual, the demands of the season and his exceedingly physical style of play have taken their toll on Nadal, who is absent in Shanghai and may miss the Davis Cup finale. Whatever happens in those events, however, should not dull the luster of the Spaniard’s year.

He who had been just the spoiler of Federer’s dominant seasons finally put up a dominant year of his own. Rafael Nadal deserves recognition as the player of the year.


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