Phase 2: The Quest for Wimbledon
Having won his first Roland Garros at 19 years of age, the young Rafa craved
new achievements. His next ambition was Wimbledon - the tournament no one
thought he could win. There were two main obstacles: the technical aspects of
his clay game were not suited to grass, and the domination of Roger Federer on
this surface, a man with all the technical and tactical weapons needed to master
Nadal took three years to win Wimbledon in 2008, during which time he
hugely changed his technique to become more efficient. His No.1 rival Federer -
who won the tournament every year between 2003 and 2007 - was playing fast,
taking the ball early and used a choppy backhand a lot. This gave the Spaniard
completely different angles to deal with, compared to clay.
Rafa struggled when attacked on his forehand. The big loop his arm took often
made him late to the ball, so he had to play shorter and with more fragility.
In order to improve his counter-attacking game, he shortened his preparation,
keeping his elbow lower and speeding up the work of the racquet head - a
technique often used to return an opponent's first serves. With this change he
generated less speed, but better use of the speed of the ball made up for this.
He had to find more power, knowing that aces and winners are mandatory if
you are to succeed on grass. Plus, if he could convince his opponents that he
was unreachable on his first serve, he could place more pressure on their returns.
He had to find a way to gain speed, so he increased the falling distance of the
racquet - however this solution did not work. Instead of giving more freedom to
his wrist in order to send the head of the racquet higher, he raised his hand
and also lifted his elbow far higher than the shoulder line. Technically this
motion lacks accuracy, but it did give him more speed: a 184km/h average speed
compared to 158km/h in 2003 testifies to this. Even if he remains some way off
the efficiency he seeks, he reached his goal of winning Wimbledon.
Besides this technical work, Nadal tried to improve all areas of his
game - and especially his backhand, adding the slice. This shot improved a lot but
was still not crushing enough, sometimes putting him on the defensive
afterwards. Playing doubles on a regular basis also helped him work on the
shots he needs: the serve, the return and the net game. As years passed, he began
to play more and more offensively.
Phase 3: Success on All Surfaces (2008-)
Far from being satisfied with his Wimbledon triumph, Nadal set new goals
for himself. He had never won the US Open, but knew he would shine on all
surfaces if he could find a more universal technique. The serve was still his
biggest consideration as he had to bring it up to the level of the rest of his
game; at Flushing Meadows, with faster, lesser rebounding courts than those in
Australia, the serve can be decisive. On the forehand, he was now taking
advantage of his shortened motion but also knew he had lost his ability to find
angles such as the inside-out short ones.
In 2005, his preparation was higher and his loop bigger. His hand was level
with his pectorals, whereas in 2011 it is lower, near the abdominal region. His
elbow was also much higher in 2005, ending the head of the racquet a good 50cm
higher. Also in 2005 the elbow was placed further from the body - in 2011 its
position prevents the big loop.
Comparison between 2008 and 2011 clearly shows that Rafa is back to
using his 2005 motion. His elbow is lower than in 2008 when his hand was high
above his head. He no longer trespasses over the shoulder line. His wrist is
still 'broken' when he raises the arm, but he now succeeds in better raising the
head of the racquet in order to gain speed. His toss is now higher and he
strikes the ball when it hits its highest point, whereas before he was hitting
it on the way down. And he is finally dealing better with the bodyweight
transfer forward so he gains more power. The numbers speak for themselves: he
increased his average speed on first serves from 184 to 190 between 2008 and
2010, while the number of aces follows a similar path, increasing from 210 to
During all the work on his forehand, he lost some speed because it was
generated by the loop. Therefore he sought another way of gaining it, improving
the work of the wrist to whip the ball. Rafa's forearm now travels ahead of his
hand, which is in turn ahead of the head of the racquet, perpendicular to his
arm. With a whip-like action it makes up for the lost time, arriving with a lot
of speed. This is what gives the shot its striking quality. A lab based in San
Francisco measured that Nadal's topspin reaches a rotation of 3,200 turns per minute,
compared with the 1,900 turns per minute of Agassi and the 2,700 turns per minute