There are no words to describe Rafa’s feat. It’s my 14th article talking about him in Paris, and I’m running out of adjectives. After explaining the keys to his technical evolution, I now prefer to highlight the key reading and adaptation attributes of his transformation.
In recent years, Rafa has made a constant evolution of his game. He was already an excellent player on the defense side. From an early age, he managed to enter the counter-attack zone and even be offensive with his forehand, but always with the premise that, once he had control of the court, he had to maintain that position and dominate without giving breath to the opponent always with the idea of not failing or even defending, again and again, or whatever it took. The big change came when his team decided to work the most advanced defense, from the counterattack zone and, at the first, attack to win the point. That was the weapon to neutralize Novak Djokovic who managed to dominate him. This one pulled him out of the defense and Rafa could not return, becoming vulnerable, playing uncomfortable.
The change has been substantial. Now, the only shot from defense is the return. From there, he looks forward, measuring perfectly the trajectory of the ball and the depth knowing also that the revolutions will allow him to maximize the trajectories as if it were an architect, hitting like that where he wants. With measured displacements and an identical point of impact, ball after ball, always on the bow part of the boat, where you can push, push, and push again.
This Roland Garros has been where Rafa has pulled and flipped the most, where he has entered the court to bust the first shot the most, where he has done more drop shots, where more winners have made in the first four balls, where he has played as he does on hard-courts, and was the most aggressive of all. A clear example was last Sunday’s final where Rafa won the last 11 games in a row, he attacked behind his serves, taking the initiative away from Ruud who did what he could when he was the one pulling.
Poor Ruud…. when you have such a series of shots under pressure is like the boxer who has the opponent against the ropes and to defend he can not take out his arms. Rafa pushes and pushes the opponent without letting him breathe, he did it with effects and high balls, and now he does it with winning shots and with total mastery of the field.
This which seems so easy is the most complex thing that exists in our sport, as you first need to understand the length of your shot to start anticipating. Then, you have to read the direction of the opponent’s strike before hitting and see the depth of the boat. Especially if that ball boat is gonna push you or you’re gonna get in. This is where Rafa has managed to turn it around and evolve more in order to continue competing. And when he competes, either way, he finds a way to win.
Trying to change your game is hard. But creating the habit is only achieved by the gifted. We always emphasize that Rafa’s head is the best, his physical body even with that injury of so many years puts him on a top level by the way he moves. Tactically, he has turned the screw one more time. He has also amply demonstrated that he is number one on a technical level. With all those adjustments made, we could put him on top. In addition, it is very remarkable his reading of the game, how he deciphers the geometry of the track, his desire to compete, how he counteracts players with more shots…Although I stay with the strategist who wants to learn and adapt to continue enjoying his passion, Rafa is winning the game of being the best player of all time (GOAT), not only in results but in all facets of the game. Raising that cup in your garden, Paris, puts it on the pedestal. The rest of you will have to work hard to get it off.
And after all, here we are. One more final for Rafael Nadal against his opponent Zverev, who got unlucky while playing the match as one of his best matches in a Slam after he got injured during the match. Rafa during the match found a way of winning and made use of his mental strength to be close to the opponent and in the key moments uncover the jar of essences. More than three hours of tennis battle, physical and mental, and they manage to find opportunities for both players at a high performance. An amazing semifinal, with nerves, failures, brilliant moments, and also moments in which their face expression was showing their spirit and their real feelings, both were nervous.
This Nadal is different. I don’t know if it is because of his attitude towards the injury, or because he doesn’t want to wear out, or because he decided to be more aggressive on court. Throughout the tournament, he has been playing and earning more points with his serve, with his second shot as a forehand or a backhand, with serves and drop shots, or with serve and volley. The number of points in which he used to maintain the ball for long rallies decreased in such a way that we do not even remember more how was Rafa, the one that used to play to wear out the opponent. That is his magic, being able to be in the final with what was one of his weakest parts on his game, and now he is winning the matches using the same tools as others had as their strengths. Now Rafa is there, and that says a lot about him and his team, Carlos, Marc, Francis… They have worked tirelessly to find the best defense with his forehand and find ways to be more offensive with what comes next. Great job.
We know the clay tennis game no longer exists, the players’ patterns are set to play in hard courts and the current clay court tennis is as if they played in hard court, maybe adding some drop shot more. Alcaraz in Miami accumulated 60 drop shots, in the semifinals Rafa had already 25 and in the tournament about 70 drop shots. But here you have to take the initiative because clay court does not give you anything, each ball slows down and you can not afford a rest, and Rafa has that very clear.
It seems that this transformation is easy for a Rafa Nadal, but creating all these new habits in the key moments and not making mistakes elevated him to a higher level which surprises rivals and as other times destroys their mental toughness because they do not expect it.
On Sunday he is the absolute favorite to give a spin to all his records again, but what has more merit is the evolution of his game, even with all the physical difficulties. There is his greatness: more problems, more preparation, more work, more value to the points, more desire to compete, more legacy, more history, and more inspiration.
Yes Rafa, it seemed that everyone had forgotten about you. Not having won in previous tournaments has taken you out of the lottery, but here everyone saw what you are and that we can always count on you. You have one last step left for your 14th. Go on, go on and on. You’re amazing, like the last Mohican, always reinventing yourself and finding your way.
Emilio Sánchez, CEO ES Academy.