Rafael Nadal: Blameless Disruptor of Tennis


Like many tennis fans as well as sports fans in general, I’ve been caught up in the drama of the evolution of style and how it especially shapes traditions of  “one-on-one” sports like tennis, boxing and MMA.

A revealing piece of history here is the battle in this era of tennis among three immortals, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal. Recently I added a Third Postscript to the original piece done a few years ago.

Original Article.

From his public comments (e.g., on Charlie Rose after winning the US Open in 2013), Rafael Nadal seems pleasant, humble, gracious, a good spokesperson for tennis among top players of today and, for that matter, overall in a game which has had its share of prima donna champions.

Unfortunately, that quality of public niceness has no importance to tennis as a historical game. The question here isn’t personality but style of play. I think Nadal’s style is a disaster for tennis. It is an aesthetic disaster. Most tennis fans probably don’t care about the beauty of the game. They don’t think about aesthetics. They think about won-lost records. They think about how many majors a player has won. They do not know much about the past of tennis; they do not care much about that past. “Legacy” means little if anything to them. Style means nothing to them.

Such an essay of complaint as this is certainly trivial in the grand sweep. Yet the latest neuroscience and anthropology reiterate that Homo sapiens needs refuges, and certainly tennis has been one for some of us attuned to the echoing duels of graceful tennis marvels in bounded and usually beautiful spaces. For instance, Nabokov, that supreme aesthete, wrote long ago of Bill Tilden’s “divine delicacy of absolute power.”

Nadal himself is blameless as the Disruptor of Tennis. He is a phenomenal athlete, a gifted natural. Though you could never prove it, you feel confidence in imagining that conceivably he may have the best hand-eye coordination in the history of tennis. He is no sinner, no villain.

The problem is the evolution of the tennis racket.

Nadal has done this: He has taken the racket technology available to him and for various reasons which most probably will mostly remain forever mysterious, developed a game, a style, that not only stands athwart the stylistic tradition of tennis–a tradition with considerable and dramatic and graceful variety within it–but may be transforming tennis into a game it has never before been; and sent it in a displeasing direction. I think it is a direction toward the ugly.

Sooner or later, the style of Nadal’s game would have arisen from the rackets of today. It is a scenario in which Some Prodigy Meets Today’s Light Rackets Strung By Today’s Standards and we have a drama never before seen. I fear it will have a long run. I am hoping it won’t.

About tennis rackets and the restless technology thereof: I recently talked to an engineer with experience in developing new tennis-racket technology. He told me that “limits were reached empirically not too long ago.” Meaning? He meant that professional and fine amateur players have tried different advanced designs and discovered that when rackets are too light and too loosely strung with polyester and other kinds of strings, eventually it becomes impossible for players “to gain enough control over placement of shots.” In other words, he said that players begin to have far too much difficulty in keeping their shots within the lines. These racket designs exceed the limits of play within the traditional court dimensions. Pace might be heightened, but control of the length, the depth and the angle of shots becomes impossible.

So, apparently, some natural limits, some constrictions from our physics itself, on tennis racket technology may have been reached. But the new reach itself is unfortunate. Nadal, and most probably a new generation of imitators, have found enough racket lightness and enough low-pressure stringing to begin to change tennis into something more like jai alai.

Lets take Nadal’s win over Djokovic at the US Open in 2013, together with his steady improvement of his win-loss record against Federer, as a way to talk about the issue. Djokovic’s ground game against Nadal at that Open in the second set and early in the third set was a marvel. He overpowered the best defensive player of our time with forehand and backhand drives which were wonders of timing–taking balls on the rise and powering them into corners with great beauty of style–and seemed perhaps on his way to winning the match. But almost inevitably Djokovic faltered. Why? Because he could not maintain that level of play with his backcourt drives.

Why not? This second question is the crucial one.

The reason seems clear. Nadal, with the light, loosely strung rackets, powerfully brushes up and over or under his ground strokes with unprecedented racket-head speed and imparts both topspin and underspin as never before possible until the emergence of the rackets du jour. Like Nadal, Djokovic tries to beat you largely from the back court (he is not a natural net-rusher), but his drives have a classic look and feel about them. He sweeps through the ball; his spin on his ground strokes is still classic in the sense that much of that spin is significantly imparted by his natural follow through on his strokes. In contrast, Nadal’s jerky, violent, upward-whipping and ugly forehand–so anomalous in tennis, reminding of a frenzied bowler–is the key clue to the technology corruption in today’s game. Most importantly, Nadal can generate great racket-head speed and spin on his forehand to produce drives that often seem like “moonballs” on steroids, high-arcing returns which move with much more pace than ever before possible with such shots. Though Nadal and Djokovic both play in the era of modern racket technology, Nadal has found his own new way to exploit the rackets and Djokovic has developed his game essentially within the traditional style and idea of striking the ball. The special problem with Nadal’s style appears especially when Nadal is stretched into defensive play. What often happens is that (a) Nadal, run out of position by a ground stroke from the opponent in a painstaking rally in which that opponent has maneuvered Nadal into trouble, can muscle a high-arcing forehand return which (i) slows down the exchange because of the altitude of the shot and lets Nadal get back into position, (ii) presents a timing problem for the opponent in his trying to take that heavily spinning looper on the rise and power another shot into a corner to put Nadal again on the run, (iii) becomes an affront because it is is a cheap way to escape from danger, and (iv) makes any tennis player who has come up more or less through a traditional tennis concept begin to lose interest. You surrender points against an abnormal defensive shot, an unintended fluke consequence of technology. I think especially of Federer in his later matches against Nadal.

Yet if Nadal’s forehand is bizarre, the rest of his game is not. His simple, efficient service motion is a throwback to players in the 1920s and 1930s. His backhand does not seem unusual in today’s game. His volleys are orthodox and serviceable, if not the volleys of a natural net-player. But you wonder whether his future imitators will have less traditional backhands, serves and volleys as they stylize tennis anew to produce heavily spinning shots off the new rackets.

In short, the new tennis-racket technology negates what has been a long-running and appealing general style of play based on a certain mastery of the game which has lent tennis an exquisite beauty in the hands of its masters, from Tilden to Federer. The centre of tennis has held until now.

I think that secretly the aesthetics of tennis mean much to its great players, or to most of them. I think this has been true since before Tilden’s day. Certainly it must be true for Federer.

Regarding my point of view: Sour grapes? Effete snobbery? Acting the curmudgeon?

Time will tell. If you take the pessimistic view, you have to believe that the new tennis-racket technology will change the game such that it will lose its traditional identity. Beautiful things get ruined. Tennis will probably be no exception.

The test will lie in the evolution of the audience for the sport.

First Postscript

I wrote the above piece in the Fall of 2013.

Yesterday, June 3, 2015, Novak Djokovic routed Nadal in straight sets in the quarterfinals of The French Open, a tournament Nadal had won nine out of the last ten years in a truly remarkable run. Djokovic has been dominating Nadal and tennis of late. At 29, Nadal’s hysterically strenuous blue collar tennis seems finally to have caught up with him: physically he is slipping from the great energy levels, impossible hand-eye coordination, and intense psychology of determination entailed by his style. As an Egyptian tennis expert and great friend puts it, Nadal is suffering from “the Raging Bull syndrome,” a most apt stylistic analogy to boxer Jake LaMotta’s flailing-but-fearsome ring style which eventually exhausted him physically and spiritually. Djokovic, the latest in the long line of beautiful classic styles beginning with Tilden and coming up through players like Gonzales, Rosewall, Edberg, McEnroe, Sampras and the peerless Federer, has prevailed and, hence, the tradition has prevailed. I consider Djokovic a hero of tennis, one who has met at the crossroads the challenge of a mindless “modernism” of style and saved us from it, securing for a while longer the Edenic refuge of tennis in this brutally indifferent world.

Tennis has never been merely a game.

Second Postscript

The 2016 French Open is underway, and Rafael Nadal has withdrawn. He is citing a weak wrist. Might this be The End At The Top for the brave Spaniard, the fighter with probably the ugliest game ever displayed by a major player? Yes, I continue my  objection to Nadal’s play almost purely on the basis of aesthetics. And I continue to hold him entirely blameless. And I continue to realize that aesthetic grounds will be for many pointless, if not more than a bit strange.

I confess. But I am unrepentant.

In fact, writing a few days ago in The Wall Street Journal, tennis journalist Tom Perrota got much right about Nadal and about the long-time dynamic of  big time tennis. To begin with, he reported on a growing anxiety in Nadal over the past year, now an intense anxiety, that has diminished his prowess. Nadal has taken to worrying in what might be almost an existential fret, an anxiety that he will lose. What might be the sources of his anxiety? Perrota offered what sounds like a profoundly true analysis. Nadal can no longer hit that loopy topspin forehand free-footed with the reliability of his younger days. He has reached his late twenties and he has slowed ever so much, enough that he needs proper footwork for that forehand. The experience has probably meant that he will never regain the old confidence, both because the erosion of youthful athletic confidence is often traumatic and the unrepairable physical decline is a permanent barrier. But Perrota goes on to look at tennis itself–how the game itself works out the rise and fall of champions. As Nadal has declined, more and more players have begun to solve his style–they have practiced and practiced specifically what they need to practice to sharpen in their games to beat Nadal and his style. They have been learning to handle heavy topspin–Perrota remarks that many ATP players now handle that style much better than they did a few years ago. Djokovic early solved the problem–that’s why he has been beating Nadal consistently. Well, others are catching up.

This is the way of tennis, going back to the months in the early Twenties when Tilden went into seclusion one winter and worked out a backhand that could overcome the pounding losses Bill Johnston had been handing him by attacking his slice backhand with Johnston’s punishing heavy topspin forehand. Once he had mastered his new and beautiful backhand drive, Tilden beat Johnston regularly.

Third Postscript

It is early in 2017, and Roger Federer has recently won the Australian Open at age 35, beating 30-year-old Rafael Nadal in a memorable five-set final, Federer reaching heretofore unseen sublimity in the fifth set. And yesterday (March 16, 2017), Federer routed Nadal in the fourth round of the Indian Wells tournament, winning his second encounter in a row with the Spaniard who for a while seemed to have become Federer’s stylistic nemesis by relentlessly sending heavy-topspin forehands to the demoralized Swiss’s largely defensive backhand.

But Federer has reinvented himself!

He is a new player at 35!

The triumph of style over aging!

He now has a punishing and classic topspin backhand drive that overcomes Nadal’s formidable topspin forehand! And Federer is now striking the ball very early on the rise with both his forehand and backhand shots–in fact, he is routinely hitting ferocious and lethal half-volleys from the backcourt (unheard of in tennis history)–thereby rushing Nadal and Federer’s other opponents. And as my friend and great tennis analyst and former Egyptian player, Abdel al Hamamsy, points out, Federer is tactically sending scorching shots every so often down the middle of the court to take the passing angles away from Nadal.

Abdel points out that much of this wonder is owed to Federer’s brilliant veteran coach, the one-time denizen of the ATP tour, Ivan Lubcic.

(For Abdel’s tennis thinking, see elsewhere in this blog: Tennis Reflections from Abdel al Hamamsy: Federer, Deity; Djokovich, Rescuer: Nadal, Iconoclast.)


The to and fro of strategy and tactics in tennis…the drama at the heart of the glory of the sport.