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I guess I’m speaking for everyone who has ever picked up a tennis racquet and for everyone who enjoys watching tennis live or on TV when I say, “I miss Rafa!”. Don’t we all.

Well, I’m sure his return is on the horizon. And like everyone, I’m wondering if his knees will allow him to mount a successful return competing for Grand Slams against the top guys – you know who they are.

There’s no doubt Nadal will have to work very hard to keep up with his peers. He knew that a couple of years ago when he embarked on his campaign to become a more complete player. Winning on grass and hardcourts is proof of that. At any rate, and in the immortal words of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin of the comedy hit show Laugh In, “You bet your sweet bibby” Nadal knows that it won’t be easy and that he’ll have to do everything he did before, and more, to win more Grand Slams running on JoeNamath-like knees. But he can do it!

Let’s take a look at some of the things Rafa did to be a more complete player. Here they are...

Forehand  - This is an obvious one. As everyone knows, Nadal’s forehand is one of the biggest weapons the sport has ever seen. Not only can he keep you pinned on the baseline till hell freezes over, he can pull you off the court with sharp angles while maintaining a high shot percentage. But that’s not all, his inside-out forehand has taken his game to new heights and he doesn’t mind punishing any and all balls landing short on his side of the court. Like I said, this is a gimme, and all of the guys at the top are capable of hitting the same shots with equal enthusiasm and skill. Rafa’s coach knows this, and Rafa has put in the work. As a lesson to all tennis players, be sure to practice your big weapon as much as you do the weaker shots of your game, that is, if you want to keep beating the guys on your club ladder.

Backhand – If you know @juanjo_sports you would also know he has a wonderful insight and mind for the game of tennis. The following is his assessment of Nadal’s improved backhand.

If you took someone who never saw Nadal play and made that person watch any of Nadal’s Grand Slam finals, that person would have been hard pressed to name Nadal's weak side. You could have told him that once upon a time Nadal never even considered attacking with his backhand (unless he was attempting a pass---he was always good at those) from the back of the court. It used to be that everyone and their mother started their gameplan by attacking Nadal's backhand. Good luck these days, as he has more than one alternative to make you look dumb.

While he still rarely attacks with his backhand down the line, his cross-court backhand has become vicious. He's developed incredible timing on it, especially because he hits it flat (this might be the lone flat stroke in Nadal's arsenal).

So if three years ago Nadal hit his backhand short and spinny, with no aggression to it, almost inviting you to pummel him on that side, he now can hurt you with it immediately, or at the very least, give himself a chance to hurt you properly with his main weapon. And in the past year or two, he's developed a new tool – the slice backhand. I remember when he started using this shot a little over a year ago. It was hilarious. He was obviously not very good at it. I would even say "thank you, Nadal" when he hit one of those pathetic slices to Djokovic. The basic problem was that he hit it short and his ball didn't skid. So it sat there, waiting to be killed. Any other player would have pulled the plug on this little project, but Nadal being Nadal, he kept at it. He kept trying to get better at it. Incredibly, his slice worked even on clay, a surface where you're not supposed to hit slices. Then again, Nadal could probably try any shot and it would work on clay.

Still, from that sad little shot he used to hit, we arrive to those ridiculous, Federer-esque slices he hits today – buying himself time, disrupting everyone elses timing.  It’s just amazing to watch how good that slice backhand is these days.

Volley - When Rafa started improving this aspect of his game, it was clear he needed to put in the long hours.

I think Nadal is the one person that truly understands the point of going to the net in the 21st century. Mainly, you cannot charge the net trying to find something. Trying to dare your opponent to hit a great shot. That used to be the old wisdom: you attack the net because you have a higher percentage shot by volleying than does your opponent by hitting a perfect passing shot. Now, EVERYONE can hit perfect passing shots. Off any wing. So hitting a volley after someone hits a killer pass these days is way more difficult than hitting that same passing shot.

Nadal understands that you come to net to finish a point. Not to tempt anyone, not to dare someone to come up with something great. You come in with the point half in your pocket, so you can truly have a high-percentage shot. So you'll rarely see Nadal get passed, and you'll rarely see him miss a volley. He'll get to net, but he'll only get there when it's absolutely right to be there. Which is the most important piece of strategy you can have.

Serve - It's still not great. And this is the one item on the list that probably won't improve that much for the rest of the way. Like Uncle Toni says, this is not a natural movement for Nadal, and the serve is the one instinctive, organic part of everyone's game. Sampras said it best himself, by not saying what exactly made his serve the best ever. He said he didn't know. It just happened.

Nadal had to learn it, and he clearly understands what needs to be done. And his serve is very successful anyway, because it carries so much spin, and has that tricky lefty trajectory. Only two or three players force him to come up with something special on this side, and nowadays, he does.

He is using the lefty wide serve on the ad court a lot more, and he should. But he's hitting that hard one down the line that gives him a free point more often than not, since everyone is covering for the dreaded wide serve. And he's developed a very efficient body serve that forces people to adjust in a milisecond. This gives him either a short ball or a free point.

So while he doesn't serve particularly hard, on a good day Nadal will place his serve really well. He'll look for corners, he'll surprise you most of the time. And again, this is for the times when the basic, serve-to-the-backhand strategy doesn't work. Which is rarely.

Return of Serve - This is also an area where Nadal wasn't really that good. He's not an instinctive returner, and too often he used a longer swing. But slowly but surely, he was reading serves better, and he was shortening that swing. He rarely goes for winners off returns (and he can), but he's also understood the changing times, and he's becoming increasingly good at not missing second serve returns. And he's getting them deeper and deeper. Which is a problem for everyone. Because if you once could serve Nadal out the court, now he rarely gives you free points. And the more he steps in for second serves, and the deeper his returns get, the more pressure he puts on other people. Which is why he leads most of the return of serve statistical categories.

Court Positioning - This one is the key, because it enables him to dispatch opponents quicker. And the strategy is simple: you want to stay close to the baseline so you can pounce any short balls that come your way. If you're too far behind, the odds that you come up with a momentum-changing shot are slimmer, and you're going to be doing way too much running. And while sometimes that's inevitable, it's not advisable that you're running around like crazy in the third round, chasing down balls from someone ranked 58 spots below you.

So the kid worked on all of these things for a couple of years. He worked hard, and he worked relentlessly. Of course, it wasn't a one-man journey: Toni Nadal might just be the greatest coach of this era. If anything, Toni is successful at keeping Nadal hungry, giving him constant reality checks. Everyone remembers how after Nadal won his first French Open, the gift his uncle gave him was a list of things he did wrong in that match. As an example of what's more common on the ATP, Marian Vajda's reaction to Djokovic winning last year's Australian Open was to proclaim that Djokovic could become no.1 by the end of the year. Which of course, he did.

Toni Nadal understands tennis. He understands his nephew. He understood what needed to be done, and what still needs to be done.

It was particularly touching to read Nadal's presser after the final. If the French Open was his destiny, Wimbledon was a dream, then this Australian Open was about reaping the rewards of hard work. A symbolic prize for all those hours working on his game. For all those minutes spent on hardcourts everywhere.

Posted by Steven White, Author and illustrator of Bring Your Racquet: Tennis Basics for Kids


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Comment by Steven White on November 18, 2012 at 4:14pm

I believe Nadal was a natural right hander in the days of his youth, and Uncle Toni taught him to play left handed. I think Rafa's backhand is just as lethal as his forehand these days. It's so hard to tell where he's going to hit it.

Comment by Tim Prapong on November 18, 2012 at 3:45pm

Some commentators say that Nadal has a bad return of serve, but the statistics say differently. Just because he's blocking rather than blasting them back? I wonder what is their basis for saying so, commentating his matches.

There is that controversy over the serving coach Borjas who sued the Nadal camp for recognition. In the video available on youtube, Toni seems very skeptical about the serving advice. Rafa was able to change his serve quickly and hit harder serves. 

My theory is Toni, having been a ping pong player, may be responsible for Rafa's technique, not just the forehand but the backhand. What do you think, Steve?

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