I don’t know about you but I am slowly becoming a fan of Rafa. I have always been impressed by him of course but I naively concluded that his game was built on muscle.
The closer I look the more I notice the attention to detail. I first noticed it early in this year’s US Open. To be a contender Rafa had to serve well. He did that when he won in 2010 but it put too much strain on his knees, so naturally I wondered whether he would have an answer this time. It turns out that he does. His answer is to trade pace for spin, saving his knees but creating big problems for his opponents. The extra spin is most obvious on TV in his swinging slice serve. The amount of movement he got looked like he was hitting a forehand for his serve and I liked it. The result of these changes is that in the final we saw that Rafa is currently the player that is better at solving the big problems. He backed up everything we have seen throughout 2013 to cement his claim as the best player of the year.
Technically and even tactically there really is not that much between the top two players. Rafa has won their two Major meetings this year but Novak has looked dominant many times during these matches. One thing Rafa hasn’t looked is desperate. That was how Djokovic looked for most of the match. Particularly when he was up in the third set. Not a calm man confident of success but a man celebrating as if he has to convince everyone, including himself, of his ability.
Rafa clearly put in diligent study, tennis R&D, during his seven months out exploring ways to compete with his obvious limitations. He used the injuries to improve his technique and strategy. Now that he is back on tour he is putting the R&D to work and taking the theory and molding it into a polished product.
What I mean here is that Rafa knows both himself, the tennis court, and his rivals. As a tennis player he knows what is available to both him and his opponents in any given situation. He uses that knowledge to formulate a plan of both attack and defense, where he can attack to setup a winning shot but also defend so that the attack doesn’t expose weakness. That is what I see. The specific shots and technical weaknesses are important mainly because they become the targets at which each player aims their strategy. What I see is that Rafa has built a huge castle around his game where he can rush in and attack yet quickly retreat to safety. He is using time and the art of surprise to his advantage at a level we haven’t seen before.
I see it most in his serve but it permeates his whole game. He doesn’t just use his shots and the court to apply pressure; he uses time itself. Controlling the rhythm of play can be a very useful weapon. It is complicated to achieve this by changing your effort, how hard you hit the ball because it affects your timing. Spin is one of the best ways to adjust the rhythm of a point without affecting the effort you put in and thus your timing. Rafa is addicted to spin and he has begun to use it to control the rhythm and timing of the point. That is his weapon. Things like his slice backhand can also be a weapon when used effectively to alter the rhythm of a point.
Like any gladiator it is not necessarily what that weapon is that matters, but how well he masters it. This battle is all about location, location, location. What I see is Rafa varying the pace of every shot through spin to defend when he has a weak position and attack when he has a good position. At the same time spin allows him to hit a very hard, very complicated shot with little risk of missing. The ball may go short or sit up but the effect of the spin creates an extra challenge for his opponent to overcome, adding to the defensive quality of the shot — something we noticed particularly in the fourth set with Novak missing several sitters with heavy spin.
Rafa also uses slice to slow the point down so that he can retreat to a good position or top spin to speed the point up and rush the ball past Novak. Slice can also keep it low and force Novak to hit up or Rafa’s topspin forehand can get the ball up high and make him stretch.
The use of spin and its effects are not new in this story between Rafa and Novak; Novak does exactly the same to Rafa and has had great success. What is new is how well Rafa is using the element of time to take the best positions and remove all but the riskiest opportunities. Just like classical warfare it is he who takes the best position most often that is most likely to win. That is what we have seen this tournament and this year.
Rafa understands more than anyone that odds and averages are everything, and he and Uncle Tony are happy to trawl through any data they can find to shift the odds their way. All the while they are just finding ways to create more pressure on their opponent over time. Attackers like Federer apply a lot of pressure in a short time but often run out of energy or start missing. This is true for mind, body, and spirit. Fed can literally run out of ideas. Rafa applies less pressure but keeps applying it for much longer. Novak is the same. They are used to applying pressure on every point. The physical side isn’t what matters to them; it’s the mental and emotional side.
Rafa handles that better than anyone. Many have better shots and physical attributes than he does, but no one has a better mind, and since tennis is 90% mental and a game of problem solving that’s the perfect recipe for success.
Edit September 16th
I watched the French Open Semi Final match between these two over the weekend. I forgot just how dominant Novak was at times. He was a break up in the fifth set until the eighth game. There are lots of ways to explain the ebbs and flows. The commentators put it all down to who hit the hardest. As a player myself with my own Rafa (Spin master) to train with I find the opposite to be the answer. Both were pushing their attack to its limits throughout the match. When we do that we often push too far and error, often tiring ourselves aswell and getting out of position. Djokovic was just giving lots of points away for this reason. Many more than he was winning with his all out attack. Nadal just defends too well and uses his attack against him.
Dialling back on the attack even just a couple of percent means you get much more in but also you are ready for the opponents response much sooner. Combine this with the concept of directionals and you see how getting the ball quickly to your opponent while at the same time putting yourself in bad position is giving them the key to open the door to your defence.
So, my interpretation of the ebbs and flows is that when a player patiently built a point focusing on consistently good position they generally did well. Novak particularly can attack off both wings and when he used this balanced attack he did well. It was much less effort and less risky. However Novak kept panicking and overplaying, often using Federers favourite, the inside out forehand, this is what Rafa wants, it creates a lot of space to aim at in Novaks forehand side and Novak is slow to recover from his big attack. Novak won less of these exchanges than he realises. Rafa won because maintaing position and waiting for the right ball and establishing a pressurising defence instead of risky and exciting attack demands patience and discipline. Two things Rafa did better than Novak in both the French and US open finals.
I say this mainly because I am finding this a much more efficient way to win. Particularly as I meet higher level opponents. Expecting longer points and having a strategy built for it is powerful. Using the opponents pace and spin against them becomes more and more important and ensures you have an answer even against much higher ranked opponents. They often get lulled into the belief that you don’t possess power and invariably hit harder against you giving you more to work with. I learnt the concepts from Fuzzy Yellow Balls which consider this the sneakiest weapon in tennis. Now I have learnt how to use it I agree and I am using it more and more. Seeing it work at the highest level really shows its value to me.