An incredible 10 victories at Roland Garros highlight Rafael Nadal’s Grand Slam CV.
His first major triumph came on the clay of Roland Garros in 2005. And 12 years later, he triumphed at the same venue this year.
But how does the playing style, technique and tactics of his pirate-panted teenage years compare to what he produced in 2017?
Tennismash sat down with Todd Woodbridge to analyse how the world No.1’s game has evolved during his tenure at the top. We looked specifically at highlights from his win over Roger Federer in the 2005 French Open semifinals and his 2017 final win over another Swiss with a one-handed backhand in Stan Wawrinka.
Some top-line notes? Woodbridge believes Nadal’s serve and forehand have undergone the most significant changes in the years between his first and last Parisian victories.
In 2005, Nadal’s delivery was characterised by an abbreviated take-back and its sliding, spinning, safe nature. Woodbridge says that while he was physically strong for his age, Nadal’s serving technique hadn’t fully developed – it was difficult for him to hit flatter, more powerful serves. Fast forward to 2017, and a now longer takeaway has allowed Nadal more time to load up into the serve, which gives him greater variation, increased power and the ability to hit a flatter serve for more free points. Want proof? Check out the 2017 highlights from the 1:13-minute mark, and the three forceful serves Rafa throws down to extract return errors from Stan.
Against Federer in 2005, Nadal’s forehand was a huge weapon. Woodbridge says that in those days he enjoyed better preparation and a longer swing path that resulted in a smoother, flatter shot with more penetration. In recent years, the shot has become more vulnerable. Woodbridge notes the Spaniard’s more abrupt, delayed swing, loopier shot production and reduced penetration. “He’s less likely to hit a flatter, clean winner,” Woodbridge says. “He’s at times more cramped on the forehand – therefore it’s not as long a swing and he’s now catching up to the ball, which causes him to be late on the shot. It becomes ‘spinnier’ and he drops it more short.”
In the video at the top of the story, we compare Nadal’s forehand at the Australian Opens of 2005 and 2017. The pattern of play is identical – he hits a forehand down the line, before dancing around his backhand to strike an inside-out forehand winner. Yet while he finished his down-the-line shot in 2005 with his racquet across his body, the same shot in 2017 was played with his trademark ‘lasso’ swing, following through on the same side of his body and producing a shot with slightly more arc and safety.
While Nadal’s forehand may no longer be as venomous as it once was, it’s the opposite story on his backhand wing. In 2005, he played the shot from a much wider, more open stance – regardless of where he was in the court. Yet he’s shored up the shot in more recent years, and in the 2017 footage is playing the shot using a more compact, sometimes closed stance. “He used to be more open and wait for the ball to come to him,” Woodbridge observed. “But his technique now allows him to get up onto a shorter ball quicker and easier and his backhand is more of a weapon. He’s balanced up the groundstrokes – the forehand has gone down a bit, but the backhand has come up a bit.”
The Nadal of 2005 was a faster, more agile and fluid mover: “as you would expect from a younger player with a lighter frame,” Woodbridge says. Not that his court coverage in 2017 is a weakness, as the point beginning at the 50-second mark of the Wawrinka highlights demonstrates …
Woodbridge believes that Nadal is increasingly aware and confident of finishing points at net. “He’s become a competent volleyer,” he says. “He used to avoid the net more – now he’s more confident there. And still continuing to improve.”