After studying Nadal’s return positions in the last four Australian Opens and comparing them with the other men’s players who were in the Top 10 late last season, GIG determined that Nadal was four times more likely than others to stand very deep to return first serves and an astonishing 10 times more likely than the others when returning second serves.
Nadal’s return tactics are one more sign that the modern game is not as homogenized as its critics like to lament. The surprise is that 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 and today’s conditions in the game allow him to get away with it,” said Paul Annacone, the Tennis Channel analyst and 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 and by Kevin Anderson in the final. It also destroys much of the incentive for them to go for big second serves.
But Nadal’s court positioning also opens up angles of attack for his opponents’ wide serves and creates potential opportunities for those willing to attack or venture to the net.
Nonetheless, he ranks consistently among the most effective returners in the game.
He has won a higher percentage of first serve return points — 34.9 percent — than any other leading player over the last 52 weeks and ranks second in 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 from becoming one of the greatest players in history. Quite the contrary, and though there are lingering concerns about the state of his right knee heading into next week’s Australian Open, here he is at age 31: back at No. 1.
“It’s always a risk to stand that far back,” said Darren Cahill, an ESPN analyst and leading coach. “But it makes sense for Rafa, and he’s been able to just about perfect it.”
It makes sense for Nadal because of the uncommonly extreme grip change he has to make when switching between hitting his forehand and his two-handed backhand. That grip change takes precious time, and retreating more than six feet behind the baseline buys him that time.
“It’s probably what, two-tenths of a second more time, to react; to see where the serve is going?” Cahill said. “But it’s that fast twitch he has that allows him to move and get his racket on the ball, and he has amazing strength off both sides.”
That is because Nadal is a natural right-hander, which adds heft to his two-handed backhand.
“If he is taken out wide on the backhand, he uses a lot of right arm to be able to muscle that ball into play,” Cahill said. “No one else from that far back in the court can throw the ball up with that amount of spin and give it enough hang time to make it uncomfortable for the opponent to put away that first ball. It’s just difficult to do that.”
The discomfort for the opponent is not only due to Nadal’s heavy strokes. It comes from knowing that putting the ball past him when he is healthy and hitting passing shots with precision and flair remains one of the game’s great challenges.
“When he’s confident, really confident and playing well, and he does this on clay, too, he’ll start the point from a deep position and then you watch where he goes after he hits the return,” Annacone said. “He gets up right behind the baseline and then tries to dictate. If he stays back there after the return, that’s when he’s unconfident and 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 and confusion in his opponents.
Still, a lesser player and athlete would have paid too high a price for the deep positioning, and there is 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 in 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 a single break point on Federer’s serve and lost, 6-4, 6-3.
“Roger is one of the greatest strategic servers who has ever played,” said Annacone, Federer’s former coach. “You give him that space, particularly on a fast court, and that’s a problem. And that’s why Novak Djokovic is 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, and if Roger doesn’t hit his targets, Novak will punish him.”
Nadal has of course punished Federer plenty through the years and still leads 23-15 head-to-head.
But Federer’s ability to come over his backhand more frequently and his renewed late-career commitment to the attack have — for now — made the difference.
So why aren’t more players making Nadal suffer for his returning tendencies?
“No. 1, because it’s not the style of play today,” Annacone said. “There’s almost nobody other than two or three guys who serve and volley. No. 2, because Rafa is such a great mover and a great perception returner. If you decide to serve and volley, watch how many times Rafa gets the return low, and to me that’s a heightened awareness of the guy coming in behind the serve.”
Annacone recalled that Bjorn Borg, another great athletic talent with a whipping topspin forehand, also liked to drop particularly deep for some returns.
“Bjorn was pretty far back but not that far back,” Annacone said. “I don’t remember anyone consistently being able to get back to neutral from there like Rafa. Once you get back there, you better be pretty darn good with what you do with the ball to get back in position to win a point, otherwise you are at your opponent’s mercy.
“And that’s where Rafa, when he’s confident, is amazing. He gets it high and heavy and deep, which keeps his opponent behind the baseline and then he gets up on the baseline and dictates with his forehand. And that’s when Rafa goes from really hard to play against to basically impossible to play against.”