Rafael Nadal’s Return to Sender

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

Nadal’s return tactics are one more sign that will the modern game is actually not as homogenized as its critics like to lament. The surprise is actually that will 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 as well as also today’s conditions from the game allow him to get away with the idea,” said Paul Annacone, the Tennis Channel analyst as well as 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 as well as also by Kevin Anderson from the final. the idea 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 as well as also creates potential opportunities for those willing to attack or venture to the net.

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

He has won a higher percentage of first serve return points — 34.9 percent — than any various other leading player over the last 52 weeks as well as also ranks second from 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 coming from becoming one of the greatest players in history. Quite the contrary, as well as 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 idea’s always a risk to stand that will far back,” said Darren Cahill, an ESPN analyst as well as also leading coach. “however the idea makes sense for Rafa, as well as also he’s been able to just about perfect the idea.”


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

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

that will 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 that will ball into play,” Cahill said. “No one else coming from that will far back from the court can throw the ball up with that will amount of spin as well as also give the idea enough hang time to make the idea uncomfortable for the opponent to put away that will first ball. the idea’s just difficult to do that will.”

The discomfort for the opponent is actually not only due to Nadal’s heavy strokes. the idea comes coming from knowing that will putting the ball past him when he is actually healthy as well as also hitting passing shots with precision as well as also flair remains one of the game’s great challenges.

“When he’s confident, truly confident as well as also playing well, as well as also he does This particular on clay, too, he’ll start the point coming from a deep position as well as also then you watch where he goes after he hits the return,” Annacone said. “He gets up right behind the baseline as well as also then tries to dictate. If he stays back there after the return, that will’s when he’s unconfident as well as 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 as well as also confusion in his opponents.

Still, a lesser player as well as also athlete would likely have paid too high a cost for the deep positioning, as well as 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 from 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 one particular break point on Federer’s serve as well as 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 that will space, particularly on a fast court, as well as also that will’s a problem. as well as also that will’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, as well as also if Roger doesn’t hit his targets, Novak will punish him.”

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

however Federer’s ability to come over his backhand more frequently as well as also his renewed late-career commitment to the attack have — for today — made the difference.

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

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

Annacone recalled that will Bjorn Borg, another great athletic talent having a whipping topspin forehand, also liked to drop particularly deep for some returns.

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

“as well as also that will’s where Rafa, when he’s confident, is actually amazing. He gets the idea high as well as also heavy as well as also deep, which keeps his opponent behind the baseline as well as also then he gets up on the baseline as well as also dictates with his forehand. as well as also that will’s when Rafa goes coming from truly hard to play against to basically impossible to play against.”

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