The Evolution of Rafael Nadal
One of the most disagreeable things about tennis is how it constructs shallow, lazy and frankly terrible narratives around its leading exponents. The worst of these employ the trope of polar opposites. McEnroe and Borg were fire and ice, Sampras and Agassi was server versus returner, and, in recent years, Federer and Nadal has been seen as artist against automaton.
It’s a bunch of garbage, really, not least for the insinuation that identifying a player as one opposite excludes the possibility of ever being the other. Listen to the shrillest voices in that conversation, and you’d be convinced that McEnroe threw tantrums every time he played or that Agassi never served an ace in his life.
It is an essentialization that arguably does a greater disservice to Rafael Nadal than any other tennis player in history, for it suggests a game entirely devoid of aesthetics or natural talent. He’s painted as gritty and competitive and tough, and not nearly enough as cerebral and diverse and endlessly resourceful.
The truth is that, without a lights out weapon to generate winners with, it has been intuitive for his game to take on whatever shape his opponent’s weaknesses require it to. Equally, without a selling point around which to fashion a default Plan A, his defeats can’t just be explained away by a serve that didn’t work or a forehand that fell apart on a given day. With his athleticism corroded in recent years by injuries, even his pressuring style has faltered on faster surfaces. His recent defeats haven’t just felt like had-a-bad-day defeats – they’ve felt like attacks on his entire tennis belief system.
Nadal’s top seeding in the US Open this year was met with derision. There were at least half a dozen players with better hardcourt games than him, and his early exits at Montréal and Cincinnati made it hard to imagine he’d make it through seven matches without running into an ace machine or a big forehand he wouldn’t be able to chase down.
But when play opened in New York two Mondays ago, something was wrong. The courts weren’t playing as fast as they were elsewhere, and nobody could figure out why. The four guys who’d made the Cincinnati semis just a week before were gone by the first Saturday, and of the twelve men to have won hardcourt singles titles on the tour all year, only two saw the second week.
In theory, slower courts favoured Nadal. But the bloodbath in the first week also represented a classically Nadal challenge – with the other top seeds falling, the information he had on the rest of the field shrunk. To another player, this would mean little, but Nadal hates inconsistent opponents, risky tennis, shorter points. In fact, over the last three and a half years, his win record up and down the tour against guys outside the top 20 is such that, facing them in a hypothetical non-clay Grand Slam, the average of his performances would see him exit that tournament in the fourth round. And eventually, the courts would speed up, and these guys with big weapons would blow him away.
With all this doubt swirling around him, Nadal went back to what he knew – taking time, downloading information, studying tendencies and finding weaknesses.
Nowhere was that more obvious than against Del Potro in the semis. Having given up the first set, Nadal computed that, instead of targeting an assigned weakness, unpredictability was key, and he pursued it relentlessly. What is the opponent not expecting? How well can he think on the run? Is the correction risky? A thousand tiny decisions went by in a blur. It didn’t even feel like tennis – it felt like high-calibre problem solving under intense time pressure, which just happened to involve a racquet and a tennis ball.
From the start of the second set, it took Nadal a hundred minutes to win three sets. It had taken him the same time to figure out Dolgopolov in the fourth round, and in the quarters, with mild annoyance and minimal regret, Nadal had bludgeoned Rublev 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 in ninety-six minutes.
For the first hour and a half, yesterday’s final against Anderson meandered along in the plodding pattern of two players playing not to lose. Nadal won the first set but it was unconvincing. But, as Anderson struggled on serve, he found a couple of easy putaways to lead 4-2 in the second set.
Then, all of a sudden, it was happening again. Nadal was climbing all over second serves. He was dispatching his second and third shots into unreachable areas. He was using the threat that he could chase down anything to compel his opponent into playing bad shots. He was winning free points on his own serve more efficiently than he has at any point in the last seven years. It took him twelve minutes to win the set from there.
The third set against a fast-fading Anderson started with a break of serve, and a hold to fifteen. At 3-1, Anderson won five straight points and got a look at a couple of Nadal’s second serves. The second of these was in Anderson’s hitting arc but the ball kicked up, forcing him to mistime the return. The ball hobbled halfway up to Nadal’s side of the court. Nadal read it, glided forward, and sent one of those ridiculous whipping forehands wailing up the line. Anderson, no more than two feet from his last shot, scrambled to hack the return back. By the time he looked up, Nadal was already at the net to put away a forehand volley into the opposite side of the court. He threw a look back to the other side of the net as if to say, alright buddy, party’s over. Moments later, Nadal had won his seventh game in the last ten. The whole sequence took a little over thirty-eight minutes.
For years, Nadal had compensated for his weaknesses on faster surfaces by turning matches ugly. For years, his wins were Nadal by attrition over five sets or Nadal by strangulation in four. This tournament, though, none more so than the final, has been a showcase for a style that, for so long, seemed beyond him on faster surfaces – this was Nadal by knockout in three sets.
The sentiment that lingered after the final didn’t emanate from Nadal but from Anderson.
“I know we’re the same age,” he said, “but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life.”
It was powerful and evocative but a little incomplete. Nadal’s run in New York over this year offered not just a reminder of his constancy but of his evolution – a whirl of adjustments, variety, anticipation, and geometry, with bursts of explosiveness and intelligence to burn. It’s as if the one fundamental incongruity about Nadal’s game – the description of his tennis with adjectives that aren’t intrinsic to the beauty of the sport – had, at long last, been reconciled.
Rafael Nadal played beautiful tennis last week, polar opposites be damned. He is finally, indelibly part-automaton, part-artist.