Rafael Nadal's Serve, and 7 Other Weak Shots Among the Top 8 Men
If you get into the Top Eight on the ATP these days, it means you have a pretty solid all-around game.
But everyone has a chink in his armor, even the guys at the top.
Even if you factor out intangibles or all-around issues like age or lack of confidence, you can usually point to one offensive or defensive shot that's more likely to break down under pressure.
Here's your guide to the weaker shots among the Top Eight men heading into the 2011 U.S. Open—the shots likely to play a big role in deciding who wins and loses.
Novak Djokovic's Stationary Forehand
It is hard to point at someone with just two losses on the year and find any faults, but Novak Djokovic can be defeated.
With an aggravated shoulder that caused his retirement in the Cincinnati final, his forehand could be more vulnerable than usual.
Even if it's in good shape, when Djokovic has been spotty, it's in generating his own pace and having time to think off the forehand swing.
Djokovic is still a defense-to-offense player more than he is a pure offensive tactician.
A close second in terms of weak points would be picking on Novak's net game.
Most players, though, don't own a reliable drop shot. Plus, Novak's rarely so far back that he can't run it down easily, making great hands less of a necessity for him.
Andy Murray's Serve
You won't see him double-fault a lot, and his serve does have great variety, so you wouldn't typically call it a weak shot.
But Murray's game usually thrives on having a very high first-serve percentage, perhaps more than other players.
When he starts having to play a lot of second serves, particularly against the Djokovics of the world, it causes the rest of his game to tighten.
If Murray is going to stay focused mentally and let his other shots flow freely, he needs to be clicking on his serve.
A second weakness would be the forehand wing, but it's been looking more reliable lately, and I've seen many occasions when his forehand goes off only after his serve starts faltering.
So I have to point to the serve as the bigger offender in 2011.
Roger Federer's Running Backhand
Federer is simply suffering from a lot of little things being less-than-virtuoso this year, as will happen at 30, even when you're in great condition.
But if I had to pick one shot that has seemed to trouble him this year, it's the running backhand.
Too many times this year, Fed has been in a forehand exchange on the deuce side, only to have the opponent angle it hard and deep to the ad side.
Of course, against any player this is a smart play, but Fed used to track down those balls more quickly and hit a more offensive backhand from there.
Now, his response usually leaves him on the defense.
The same could be said about the forehand, but Fed's still more powerful and a touch more versatile off that side, meaning that even when he catches a ball late he can usually do more with it.
Rafael Nadal's Serve
Last year, Nadal arrived at the U.S. Open and—seemingly out of nowhere—had developed this massive, flattened-out serve option.
It was one of the few tournaments where you'd see Nadal regularly winning free points off that shot, or at least starting the rally in such a dominant position that it was over quickly.
The serve saved Nadal's body last year.
He had less grinding to do, and it set up the rest of his game brilliantly and ensured he was fresh in the semifinal and final.
Maybe Rafa assumes that Murray and Nole are too good at returning to make it worthwhile to work on the serve. If that's the case, he should rethink that decision.
A close second weakness here is the backhand, Novak Djokovic" target="_blank">which must improve if Nadal wants to meet and beat Djokovic.
He was flattening it out to great effect last year (as he was the forehand, too). As with his serve, however, we haven't seen a willingness to try that strategy again.
Mardy Fish's Forehand
I put Fish in the No. 5 spot on my list because he's been having the year of his life and an unbelievable hard-court season.
He's clearly the best American hope on the men's side.
I was almost tempted to put him higher, but he's still somewhat untested in the second weeks of majors.
It's hard to pick a weakness about Fish these days.
The rap on him used to be an inconsistent forehand, but with vastly improved fitness he now seems less likely to try to rip ill-advised winners off that wing.
I haven't watched Fish closely enough to see if he's changed the mechanics on his forehand at all, but it still looks like the same, much less compact motion compared to his backhand side.
There are still a lot more ways it can go off, particularly when he gets frustrated and tries outhitting other players.
If Fish can stay patient and keep his self-belief that he can outlast any of the Top Four in baseline rallies (which he can), he should be able to win his quarter of the draw and get into the semifinals.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's Return of Serve
Tsonga plays a high-risk brand of tennis that is either spectacularly on or woefully off.
Jo-Wilfried is certainly solid off both wings, moves surprisingly well, is willing to come to mid-court or net quite a bit (and usually successfully), and has a real weapon for a serve.
I put him in here above Berdych, Del Potro, Soderling, Monfils and others because he's had a solid overall year that should give him great confidence in New York.
That leaves the return of serve.
I wouldn't call the serving of any of the Top Four men remarkable.
Nevertheless, all are very good in that department, and being only a decent returner can still be a liability over the course of a match.
It means that Tsonga is consistently putting less pressure on the opponent's serve, and if he loses his own serve during some patchy play (which still happens too often) he can't reliably expect to simply improve his returning level and break back.
Tomas Berdych's Defensive Anything
Berdych has one of the flattest, most penetrating forehands on the men's tour.
His backhand is solid, and his serve has some nice pop on it.
If his feet are planted and the ball is in his strike zone, then the point is likely to be over soon—and not in your favor.
The problem is defense.
On the run, especially front-to-back but also laterally, Berdych is not Top 10 quality.
I rarely see him go from defense-to-offense, and he doesn't handle spin or slice well enough to be a consistent contender for titles.
He makes this list because of his win over Federer and a fairly competitive first set against Djokovic in Cincinnati before retiring.
It's the second time retiring against Djokovic this year on hard courts (the other was in January) and Berdych has simply looked tired in too many losses this year.
Still, I have to think he has enough fitness to make the quarterfinals before bowing out.
Juan Martin Del Potro's Response to Slice
Del Potro rounds out my Top Eight because I feel like he has been playing well enough to make a quarterfinal in a slam this year.
The problem is that he'd likely have to topple one of the Top Four to get to the quarters, or hope for a favorable draw or one that opens up.
While I could pick on movement or endurance, in terms of shot-making Del Potro is weak against the slice, which stays low and spells trouble for most big guys.
Juan Martin's game has looked more complete than in 2009, if not as powerful or offensive-minded.
However, he still doesn't defend well or have a way to stay on offense from a well-placed slice.
He gets low better than you'd expect, but the match against Federer in Cincinnati featured Del Potro on the losing end of this tactic again and again.
Fortunately for Del Potro, few of the guys ranked ahead of him are great slicers.
Most will be playing him right in his wheelhouse, which should help his ranking in the coming season.