Rafael Nadal’s Return to Sender

After studying Nadal’s return positions inside the last four Australian Opens along with also also comparing them with the some other men’s players who were inside the Top 10 late last season, GIG determined in which Nadal was four times more likely than others to stand very deep to return first serves along with also also an astonishing 10 times more likely than the others when returning second serves.

Nadal’s return tactics are one more sign in which the modern game is actually not as homogenized as its critics like to lament. The surprise is actually in which his opponents, including some of the most effective servers in history, have not found a way to punish him more frequently for the ground he cedes.

“The style of play today along with also also today’s conditions inside the game allow him to get away with the item,” said Paul Annacone, the Tennis Channel analyst along with also also longtime coach.

Nadal’s retreat allows him more time to react to huge serves, like those delivered by Juan Martin del Potro in last year’s U.S. Open semifinal along with also also by Kevin Anderson inside the final. the item also destroys much of the incentive for them to go for big second serves.

however Nadal’s court positioning also opens up angles of attack for his opponents’ wide serves along with also also creates potential opportunities for those willing to attack or venture to the net.

Nonetheless, he ranks consistently among the most effective returners inside the game.

He has won a higher percentage of first serve return points — 34.9 percent — than any some other leading player over the last 52 weeks along with also also ranks second inside the percentage of second serve return points won at 55.3 percent, just behind Diego Schwartzman at 55.9 percent.

Clearly, despite debate about the tactic’s merits even within his own team, the U has not kept Nadal via becoming one of the greatest players in history. Quite the contrary, along with also also though there are lingering concerns about the state of his right knee heading into next week’s Australian Open, here he is actually at age 31: back at No. 1.

“the item’s always a risk to stand in which far back,” said Darren Cahill, an ESPN analyst along with also also leading coach. “however the item makes sense for Rafa, along with also also he’s been able to just about perfect the item.”


Roger Federer, serving to Nadal at last year’s Australian Open, has ben able to take advantage of Nadal’s deep positioning behind the baseline.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

the item makes sense for Nadal because of the uncommonly extreme grip change he has to make when switching between hitting his forehand along with also also his two-handed backhand. in which grip change takes precious time, along with also also retreating more than six feet behind the baseline buys him in which time.

“the item’s probably what, two-tenths of a second more time, to react; to see where the serve is actually going?” Cahill said. “however the item’s in which fast twitch he has in which allows him to move along with also also get his racket on the ball, along with also also he has amazing strength off both sides.”

in which is actually because Nadal is actually a natural right-hander, which adds heft to his two-handed backhand.

“If he is actually taken out wide on the backhand, he uses a lot of right arm to be able to muscle in which ball into play,” Cahill said. “No one else via in which far back inside the court can throw the ball up with in which amount of spin along with also also give the item enough hang time to make the item uncomfortable for the opponent to put away in which first ball. the item’s just difficult to do in which.”

The discomfort for the opponent is actually not only due to Nadal’s heavy strokes. the item comes via knowing in which putting the ball past him when he is actually healthy along with also also hitting passing shots with precision along with also also flair remains one of the game’s great challenges.

“When he’s confident, truly confident along with also also playing well, along with also also he does This particular on clay, too, he’ll start the point via a deep position along with also also then you watch where he goes after he hits the return,” Annacone said. “He gets up right behind the baseline along with also also then tries to dictate. If he stays back there after the return, in which’s when he’s unconfident along with also also a little bit vulnerable.”

Nadal’s extreme variations in return position — either tight to the baseline or far back near the ticket holders — also create doubt along with also also confusion in his opponents.

Still, a lesser player along with also also athlete could have paid too high a cost for the deep positioning, along with also also there is actually still an occasional tax on the tactic: Gilles Müller, in his upset of Nadal at Wimbledon last year, was particularly effective in opening up attacking opportunities by serving wide to Nadal’s backhand side inside the deuce court.

Roger Federer has used his own precision serving to shift the momentum of his once-lopsided rivalry with Nadal. Last year’s final in Shanghai, which has one of the quickest surfaces on the ATP Tour, was a case in point. Nadal could not manage to get an individual break point on Federer’s serve along with also also lost, 6-4, 6-3.

“Roger is actually one of the greatest strategic servers who has ever played,” said Annacone, Federer’s former coach. “You give him in which space, particularly on a fast court, along with also also in which’s a problem. along with also also in which’s why Novak Djokovic is actually harder for Roger to serve against than Rafa, because he doesn’t give him space. He’s so long. He can stay up on the baseline, along with also also if Roger doesn’t hit his targets, Novak will punish him.”

Nadal has of course punished Federer plenty through the years along with also also still leads 23-15 head-to-head.

however Federer’s ability to come over his backhand more frequently along with also also his renewed late-career commitment to the attack have — for right now — made the difference.

So why aren’t more players doing Nadal suffer for his returning tendencies?

“No. 1, because the item’s not the style of play today,” Annacone said. “There’s almost nobody some other than two or three guys who serve along with also also volley. No. 2, because Rafa is actually such a great mover along with also also a great perception returner. If you decide to serve along with also also volley, watch how many times Rafa gets the return low, along with also also to me in which’s a heightened awareness of the guy coming in behind the serve.”

Annacone recalled in which Bjorn Borg, another great athletic talent which has a whipping topspin forehand, also liked to drop particularly deep for some returns.

“Bjorn was pretty far back however not in which far back,” Annacone said. “I don’t remember anyone consistently being able to get back to neutral via there like Rafa. Once you get back there, you better be pretty darn Great with what you do with the ball to get back in position to win a point, otherwise you are at your opponent’s mercy.

“along with also also in which’s where Rafa, when he’s confident, is actually amazing. He gets the item high along with also also heavy along with also also deep, which keeps his opponent behind the baseline along with also also then he gets up on the baseline along with also also dictates with his forehand. along with also also in which’s when Rafa goes via truly hard to play against to basically impossible to play against.”

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