Analysis – Rafael Nadal


Since his real breakthrough in 2005, Rafael Nadal has never finished a year lower than number two on the ranking. It´s hard to embrace how great an achievement this is – especially as the top four players have been so tremendously good.

It´s indeed possible to engage in long amplifications of stunning results, suites and slaughters of records, but in this article Nadal´s game will be analyzed. Likewise with Novak Djokovic we shall process eight (8) of the most important elements, finishing with a short summary.

Forehand – a trade mark shot!

The footage prior to the stroke is often semi open stand, which gives him the optimal space in executing the shot. A substantial twist of the shoulders and at micro stop with the racket, just in time for the swing, enables him to generate a maximum of power. Then the racket speed is added on – and it´s brutal. At the moment of impact his wrist is working incredibly, and his arm is almost fully stretched out. The swing is paradoxically often finished above the head which is unique – normally swings are finished under shoulder high.

The outcome is a forehand never seen in tennis before. The spin and the bounce are unbelievable and the opponents are invariably forced backwards. The clinical precision mid court needs not to be emphasized – more interesting to point out Nadal´s ability to generate an enormous speed and spin even when folded back, and in the rear. Rating 10/10

As to the backhand, few must be unaware of the fact that Nadal is left handed. Paradoxically Rafael is basically right handed, or rather double handed. On back hand however, he also uses his right arm to the extreme, which is the main reason for the substantial degree of spin being produced even from this side.

In the swing the racket is held quite “closed” – i.e. the racket arm more vertically towards the net. Visually close to a “forehand” from the back hand side is induced. The follow through of the swing is eminent, and far out he might even evolve a hard and flat impact – preferably crosscourt.

The slice has matured a lot over the years and is skillfully used, mostly on grass and for two different aims. The first is in defensive positions where the slice is used to gain time and get back into the rally. The second is to slice down the tempo and then, with flashing feet, make a turnaround to launch his forehand. Rating 8/10

On returns, Nadal mostly applies a different strategy than his angriest rivals. Whereas they tend to be more aggressive to take the edge directly on the returns, Rafa prefers to minimize the risk and pursue an optimal position prior to a rally. Consequently his spot of response is far beyond the base line. There his chances to return with a bow, and add more air time to the ball, are enhanced. On first serves he is ingenious in shortening the swing and getting length to the return. On second serves he most frequently manages to accomodate, thus finding the game plan so eagerly pursued.

That players returning far behind the base line, are more vulnerable to angels, and serve and volley, is obvious. Nadal has however shown capable of changing tactics, should his opponents find these weak spots. An aggressive position close to the base line then has been established. Most often on the grass at Wimbledon, this ability to adapt has been exemplified, certainly contributing to his marvelous success on the legendary All England Lawn Tennis Club. Rating 8/10

Now the time has come for the volley.

Like Djokovic, and the majority of the top players, Rafa chooses his net attacks carefully. He´s good at short cross volley, with a slight sidespin, which often is the most efficient alternative at net, as it forces the opponent moving both laterally and backwards.

He even has a good perception when a quick response is called for.  In those cases he appears flash quickly at net, choosing simple solutions like a stop volley.

The smash is foolproof.

Even though the percentage of balls won at net is impressive, a higher rating than 7 can hardly be awarded, as the player profile is so base line anchored. Rating 7/10

Rafael Nadal´s serve is an element of his game which really has changed, and gone through different phases over the years. During his 3-4 first years on the tour his footage was continually changing from broad to narrow and closed. The toss was never sufficiently high, which contributed to a bad stretch out to the ball. A clear trigger point was never visible. The percentage of first serves was however good, already in his early career, which in combination with a left sliced serve, enabled him to take the initiative.

A more advantageous technique was found in 2008. The feet were closed, the twist eminent and the elbow way better than before. The motion had become more homogenous. Still some details were missing, such as a higher toss in connection with a more visible trigger point, were the power can be mobilized, and a sharper kick off with the legs.

Exactly these details fell into place before US Open 2010. Nadal now possessed a real weapon and the result didn´t default. Rafa lost his serve once (1) on his way to the final, sometimes touching speeds around 220 km/h, which would have been a utopia with his former serve.

His technique persisted till the clay season 2011 when a gradual deterioration, regrettably was uncovered. For the trained eye the difference between Nadal´s serve technique in the US Open finals 2010 and 2011 is striking. Should he regain his serve from US Open 2010, a rating of 8 would be within reach. Today he saves with a whisker a rating of 7. Rating 7/10

My next stop is an aggregate of related capabilities, footwork, mobility and speed.

Rafael commands all tools in catching up as many balls as possible. Anticipation, explosiveness, flexibility – and last but not least, an unequalled sliding technique on clay. The key to perfection is to master the sliding not to continue beyond the trigger point. Without this element of timing you´ll lose crucial tenths in correction. The last step before sliding must be utterly decisive, sometimes even a bang from the foot can be heard, featuring the power of the sliding step. The Spaniard is fascinating within this genre! Rating 10/10

Few players are more associated with the concept of endurance than Nadal. But it has actually happened that he has run into the wall. Last time was in the fourth and last set in the US Open final 2011 against Djokovic. Another example is the first final against Federer in Miami 2005, where he lost after a two sets to love lead.

Otherwise there is a perfect consensus to Rafa being a phenomenon of endurance. Bearing in mind his hundred per cent staking into every duel, both in reverse and laterally, I´m filled with admiration. Staggering close to full marks. Rating 9/10

Of all possible elements in the portfolios of the top players, I wonder if the Spaniards mind (or psyche) would not be ranked the strongest? Frankly, his is a warrior never seen on a tennis court before. Every ball, every match, in every tournament, season after season, is played as it were the last one. This statement is enough! Ranking 10/10


Not yet 26, Rafael Nadal is a playing legend. Still a teenager he brought clay court tennis to a new level, and then continued, even on other type of courts, methodically drawing on and passing the greatest of all times, Roger Federer.

Except indoors, he has with his feared spin and his lionhearted passion, become a bit of a nightmare for the Swiss. Both these players have got their names engraved in all of the Grand Slam trophies.

When Nadal with his updated serve brought home the US Open final 2010, I thought he would dominate the tour even more onwards. Now we know that this didn´t happen, instead a certain Serbian claimed the throne. And even worse for Nadal, this guy found exactly the most operative strategy against him.

The struggle of the throne will largely depend on the abilities of the duo to sharpen their serves. Both are so extremely accomplished in their games that the potential for further improvement should be limited.

As already noticed by the observant reader, Rafael Nadal´s rating was 69/80.

Next in turn: The legend and racket virtuoso from Basel.