With more willpower than many deem imaginable, Rafael Nadal has made himself the world’s best tennis player. To see him compete is to witness something extraordinary, a form of art and craft than, in its visceral qualities, is different — neither better nor worse — than longstanding number one Roger Federer. Such is the greatness of tennis that genius can take on many forms.
Yet it’s tempting for a recreational player to put Nadal on such a high pedestal that it’s easy to overlook the lessons one can learn from his game. First, let me make this clear: I’m not a fan of mimicry that simultaneously creates physical pain. Nor do I think it’s wise to imitate a world class technique or strategy unless it’s relevant to one’s own game. I don’t think, for example, that it’s worth it for people over the age of 40 who mostly play doubles to try and master Nadal’s whipping Western forehand. It’s much better at that stage to improve volleys, overheads, and compact service returns.
At the same time, no matter how you hit the ball, what your playing style is, or how old you are, there are eternal lessons to be gained from Nadal. Here are a few:
1 — Make Your Time on The Court Count
Nadal comes to his practice sessions fully ready to give his all. All that energy’s he’s bottled away from the court surfaces with a vengeance once he walks on it. He’s moving, he’s bouncing, he’s looking to do more and more to the ball — to do the things that will make him not just proficient, but better.
I shudder to think how much time I’ve wasted on the court, how many times my concentration has been indifferent, how often in doubles I let myself get sucked into the energy of the group I’m playing with. Watch Nadal practice for 10 minutes and life will never be the same.
2 — Make Your Strengths Stronger
A lot of energy is devoted to improving weaknesses. But what about making the big shot even bigger? If you’re like Nadal and have made your forehand the cornerstone of your game, have you done everything you can with it?
Nadal’s crosscourt forehand has been impressive since he turned pro, but over the last two years I’ve been dazzled by how much better his down-the-line forehand has gotten. He’s also adept at throwing in the occasional drop shot. And while I don’t expect him to ever chip-and-charge with it, it’s impressive how he’s altered his court positioning closer to the baseline to play the ball earlier.
3 — Improve Weaknesses — With A Purpose
Nadal’s backhand now is flatter, deeper, harder — in some ways even more penetrating than his forehand. He’s also learned to mix things up with a slice that stays low and can often neutralize an opponent’s power. But it’s clear that these changes were made not independently but in concert with his forehand; that is, so he can use his backhand to set up his forehand. Learning a proper and effective one-two combination – whether it’s groundstrokes, transition shots, returns, serves, volleys — is a valuable lesson.
4 — Attitude is Everything
He’s always been a high-energy, positive competitor, but now that we’ve all seen Nadal play so many more high-stakes matches over the last two years, I’m even more impressed than ever with how he conducts himself on the court. Bjorn Borg and Arthur Ashe kept poker faces, but Nadal to me is even better. Why? Because he is not merely taciturn but instead energized, appropriately excited about being in the arena — and doing so in his own timely manner.
Martina Navratilova once told me you can control two things: your toss and your attitude. Granted, Nadal pushes the limits of time between service points, he is a master at never rushing himself or letting his positive spirit let up.
Improving one’s technique is a lifelong quest. But these matters of time, toss, and attitude can be altered instantly. In that sense, it’s possible for any of us to take on much of what’s made Nadal so great.
Joel Drucker is a writer for TennisOne. See more of his work at www.TennisOne.com.
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