Three Simple Ways to Beat Nadal on Clay: Attitude,
Serena Williams is back on top but just a few months ago many thought her career was over.
Tennis is such a showcase of forceful personalities that it’s difficult to see how fluid and challenging the sport really is. So when someone is in a certain position, it’s tempting to believe they’ll stay there forever. Consider a few axioms that float through the tennis universe. Roger Federer is the man. Serena Williams is finished. Serena Williams is dominant. Andre Agassi will never win a Slam, or another Slam, or yet another Slam.
The latest ironclad statement covers Rafael Nadal’s dominance on clay. Just watching him this year, winning Monte Carlo and Barcelona without the loss of a set, shows the Spaniard in all his dirt-balling roughness. One can imagine that opponents who draw him during this time of the year walk on the court feeling down 3-love.
But surely there must be a way to crack the code and beat Nadal on clay. The first step is attitudinal. Yes, Nadal is great. Yes, he is champion, his two Roland Garros titles already booking him a sure spot in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Yes, he’s repeatedly proven he’s got the goods against no less a titan than Federer.
All reverence must go in the garbage can. As the former pro Trey Waltke once told me when discussing how to beat (or at least, attempt to beat) a better player, “You can’t look at him as a god. He’s a human. He’s got some shots that are great, but some that aren’t quite as good. So the challenge is to break it down and figure out which shots he doesn’t like to hit.”
To be sure, Nadal has run up a very impressive string of clay court wins, but is he beatable?
This is where even the great Federer failed in the Monte Carlo final. Perhaps for good reason – hey, this man Roger is number one in the world – he figured he could beat Nadal strictly by hitting the shots he preferred, falling into the trap of thinking he could just play his game and triumph. But that’s usually only viable when your preferred shots are better than the other guy’s. In Federer’s case, he is surely deluded if he thinks that striking his backhand with topspin from a defensive contact point or deep in his own court is going to hurt Nadal. It doesn’t take a USPTA master pro to know that a short, high, three-quarter pace ball hit to his forehand is no challenge whatsoever for Nadal.
So once you get rid of reverence, hubris and blindness, it’s time to pick Nadal apart. First, there’s the matter of fitness. Anyone who plays him on dirt knows it’s going to be a long battle. Unlike on faster surfaces, where the likes of James Blake, Novak Djokovic and, yes, Federer, can penetrate and quickly hurt Nadal; on clay these two-three shot combo points are rare. Bye, bye, shot-making. Hello, stamina and agility. I would think a player would know he was ready to take on Nadal effectively if he could play four-hour claycourt matches on consecutive days. This would require weeks of training – not just off-court work, but frequent best-of-five set practice matches. The great Roy Emerson, as fit a player as there ever was, used to play four sets if he was about to play best-of-three, six sets for best-of-five.
Now, with the mental hardware and the physical operating system in place, what’s the software – in other words, the tactical applications that one hopes to apply versus the Spaniard? Again, per Waltke’s advice, this is an analytical, cognitive process, where one regards Nadal as a series of ports and entry points rather than a monolithic beast.
Ex-pro and psychologist Allen Fox believes it’s important not to fear Nadal’s forehand. “Both sides are very good, but you’ve got to get him out wide on that forehand if you’re to find the backhand,” says Fox. For a righty, that means driving backhands crosscourt. For a lefty, whip the forehand wide.
Two-time French Open champ Jim Courier, himself no stranger to rigorous off-court work, chimes in with the belief that slicing the ball can also be effective. If Nadal is forced to drive a low ball, he’ll likely use more topspin and less pace, perhaps giving an opponent a bit more time to recover in between shots. Occasional drop shots – struck from inside the baseline and when the score is advantageous – can also draw Nadal out of his comfortable hitting zone.
Anyone who plays Nadal on dirt knows it’s going to be a long battle.
Then there is the matter of Nadal’s serve. He has improved it, but generally it’s a fairly predictable spinner to the backhand. Hall of Famer and legendary tactician Pancho Segura’s belief is that “you must punish the second serve, both to take charge of the point and to force the opponent to overplay his first serve. Go ahead, run around your backhand and hit the ball. Let him know that he can’t get away with a weak serve.”
As far as serving to Nadal goes, variety is essential. This is a man who has created a new standard of consistency. Therefore, the big weapon against him is doubt. He needs to be taken off the beam. One could imagine, for example, Pete Sampras firing one right into Nadal’s body, then on another point slicing one wide to his backhand in the deuce court.
Add in a few wise forays to the net, assorted slices down the middle, or even a few moonballs high and deep to Nadal’s backhand and, presto, three or four hours later he’ll be brought to his knees. It’s that simple.
Which doesn’t mean it’s easy. Perhaps the key factor here is that these three aspects – attitude, fitness, and imagination – require increased dosages of courage. A year ago I was quite miffed when Mats Wilander popped off following Federer’s French Open loss to Nadal that the Swiss had “no balls.” Where did Wilander get off saying that about such a great player? But peel it back a little, and I see Wilander’s point. If by “balls” one means courage, then indeed, Federer has lacked the stones to try and attempt many of these different tactics. Are they familiar? Perhaps not. But are they necessary? Given how dominant Nadal is on clay, they are mandatory.
As always, we would love to hear from you! Questions, comments, personal experiences all create helpful dialogue for everyone! Please click here to send us your email.
On the strength of his electrifying performances at the ATP Masters Series in Indian Wells and the ATP Masters Series in Miami, Novak Djokovic has moved within the elite in world rankings. He is the prototypical “modern” professional. Tremendous fitness, excellent court coverage, semi western forehand, two fisted backhand and adequate serve. But more than anything else he plays a well rounded game with confidence both from the baseline and the net. Jim McLennan examines his strengths and weaknesses.
Tennis For the Rest of Us: The Boxing/Chess Model
If you have watched a professional match recently, you must have found yourself wondering, “How they make those shots?” The short answer is, “Because that person isn’t built the same way as you are.” Pro tennis players are doing things that we never really want to know how to do. It would hurt us. In fact, it hurts the pros. The difference is, these pros are being paid to take those chances with their bodies. The rest of us are looking for an enjoyable exercise with a little competition thrown in for good measure. Scott Harris
Crosscourt with Matt Cronin and Eleanor Preston
TennisOne's resident tennis pundit, Matt Cronin, is joined by Eleanor Preston of the widely respected British newspaper, the Guardian, topic, Globalization. The ATP tour and the WTA tour are moving in lots of different directions including China, India, and North Africa. So what does this mean for local tournaments, sponsors, star players, and the marketing of the game in general? The fact is it creates some very unique and complex problems. How the various organizations involved deal with them might very well determine the success and growth of the game.
ProStrokes Gallery - Nikolay Davydenko's Forehand
Nikolay Davydenko is the number one Russian for the second straight year with five ATP titles. He is currently ranked number four in the world and holds wins over nearly all the players in the top ten. Although he is yet to notch a win over Federer, Nadal, or Roddick, his consistency and big game from the baseline makes him a threat in any major tournament. Fit, big topspin off both wings, definitely a baseliner, he may lack the guile of Federer, the huge serve of Roddick, or the baseline smarts of Murray, but he will run and hit with anyone. Check out his forehand in the TennisOne Prostrokes Gallery.
The Etcheberry Experience DVD
For more than twenty years Pat Etcheberry has been providing athletes from around the world with the winning edge. We call this the Etcheberry Experience, and players with an Etcheberry experience have hoisted Championship Trophies at over one hundred major championships, including 28 Australian Opens, 18 Wimbledons, 22 UP Opens, 22 French Opens and 15 Olympic medals.
And now it's your turn! This is your chance to experience the same drills, exercises and words of tennis wisdom that Pat gave to Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, Jim Courier, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and others, that helped launch them on their incredible careers. For the first time, Pat Etcheberry shares his training secrets in a series of DVDs for players of all ages, their coaches, and trainers.
If you wish to be removed from our newsletter list, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and leave the subject line blank. A confirmation email will be sent to you, and you will be removed from our newsletter list once you reply to that confirmation.
Copyright Notice: The contents of the TennisONE web site and contents forwarded to you by TennisONE are intended for your personal, noncommercial use. Republishing of TennisONE content in any way, including framing or posting of these materials on other Web sites, is strictly prohibited. See our full copyright statement