Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - The Rafa Rules
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The Rafa Rules 05/04/2009 - 6:50 PM

Rn If Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic isn’t the game’s greatest rivalry, or even a rivalry at all by the standard definition of the word—Nadal currently leads their head-to-head 13-4—this spring it has certainly become the tour’s most absorbing adversarial relationship. The length, breadth, diversity, quality, and even the sound of their rallies; the companionable but full-blooded way they square off against each other; the sight of Nadal’s tolerant smile as Djokovic imitated his most famous and embarrassing on-court mannerism during the trophy ceremony in Rome: These guys were made to play each other. While they haven’t scaled the heights together the way Nadal and Federer have, the Spaniard and the Serb produce more consistently spectacular points. The lack of win-or-die tension in most of their matches to this point—they’ve yet to play a major final—keep both of them loose and swinging from the heels. No one plays more watchable tennis.

Beyond the rallies themselves, what struck me on Sunday was how these two also have come to define a new code of sportsmanship among the men. When Nadal arrived on tour, his previously unseen repertoire of flying fist-pumps rubbed some players and fans the wrong way. They inspired Andy Roddick to play the most bloodthirsty match of his career and demolish him in a night match at the U.S. Open in 2004. Longtime fans schooled in the game’s classic Aussie virtues thought the kid was a cheesy showboat who tried to agitate his opponents by celebrating their errors. After getting to know Nadal a little better, most of us have come to realize that his exhortations are just that: self-directed, self-generated energy boosts, reminders to himself to keep his desire to win, rather than his anxiety about losing, uppermost in his mind.

It’s worked, and it’s spawned two very prominent young imitators in Djokovic and Andy Murray. While those guys allow their frustration to surface more often than Nadal, they’ve also come to see the value of creating a rousing moment of positive emotion after a winning point, rather than just putting their heads down and silently preparing for the next point. In their best matches, Nadal and Djokovic trade full-throated roars, chest slaps, and leaping first-pumps, and neither takes offense. You might prefer the old WASP code of reserved, gentlemanly humility—“act like you’ve been there before”—or you might prefer the pensively concentrated way that Sampras and Federer make their way through a match. I like to see the emotion, personally. What I like even more is the way that, unlike the days of McEnroe and Connors, that emotion is now channeled inside the sport’s traditional definitions of sportsmanship. There’s nothing ugly or antagonistic about what Nadal or Djokovic do. When they aren’t slapping themselves in the chest, they’re apologizing to each other for net cords, mishits, and pretty much anything else out of the ordinary that happens. Yesterday, Djokovic put his hand up to Nadal to say he was sorry for grunting too long after he hit a backhand. This kind of back and forth, both the fiery and the polite, is a timely and refreshing update in the way tennis is conducted. You no longer have to be an Australian from the 1950s to know how to play the game properly.

As far as yesterday’s match, I didn’t see anything to make me think Djokovic is any closer to solving the eternal riddle of Nadal on clay. He did break the Spaniard twice when he was serving for the first set, but when it was really up for grabs, in the tiebreaker, it was Djokovic who broke down. Nadal, at the most basic level, forces Djokovic to hit his favorite shots, the down-the-line forehand and backhand, from a little wider, a little deeper, and a little out of his strike zone. Djokovic is right to keep going for these shots. The alternative is to keep rallying crosscourt with Nadal, a suicide mission if there ever was one. And the Serb can hit those high-risk shots for winners. He just hasn’t shown that he can hit them for winners for two full sets. Let alone three.

You’ve heard me mention the last few weeks that it’s been a struggle to find new ways to talk about Nadal. So let me reach back and repackage a few old observations of mine about what he does well, most of which haven’t appeared here. We spend a lot of time talking about the guy's grit and desire and cussedness and even his appearance—I’ve brought his eyebrows into the discussion and Pete Bodo spent a post talking about his sleeves. Pete lamented that Rafa’s new look had changed him from an intimidating muscle car to a safe and conventional Volvo. To which I can only say that every Saturday as a kid I used to see a doctor who lived up the hill from us burn down our street at twice the speed limit in his sharp-featured, dark-green, Modish, mid-60s Volvo sedan. I've never thought that cars came any cooler than that.

Anyway, the point is that we don’t read a lot of specifics about what the No. 1 player in the world does tactically and technically to separate himself from the pack. So for those of you like me who are dusting off their racquets and checking to see if the nets are up yet, here are six lessons from the best to start the playing season.

1. Serve
Early in his career, Nadal’s serve was a liability. He used a stiff, abbreviated motion that produced little pace or bite. He’s tinkered with his delivery in the years since and upped its velocity. More important, his limited ability to produce 130-m.p.h. bombs has forced him to develop two other serving strengths: accuracy and the element of surprise. We know that Nadal takes his time setting up to serve. Part of this may stem from the fact that he can’t step to the line and count on an ace. He relies on placement and variety, which need to be thought out.

The result is that Nadal hits to more targets with regularity than his opponents. Where most players either go wide, into the body, or down the T, Nadal aims for more specific spots. He may go down the T three straight times, but rather than mixing it up by going wide on the next one, he’ll mix it up by aiming 2 feet inside the T, at his opponent’s hip, and with a little extra pace. The same goes when he serves wide in the ad court. Nadal’s accuracy makes it difficult for his opponents to guess where the ball is going.

In last year’s French Open final, Nadal served virtually every ball to Federer’s backhand. In the Wimbledon final, he changed spots much more often. Nadal doesn’t use variety for its own sake; he’s happy spinning the ball into his opponent’s backhand every time, if that’s what’s working. One advantage to this tactic is that late in a match it allows him to ambush his opponent on a crucial point in the ad court by firing a flat ball down the T.

Unfortunately, I can only point out the tactic. You have to learn to hit those targets yourself.

Lessons: (1) Even without natural power on your serve, you can be just as effective by concentrating on accuracy and hitting very specific targets. (2) Don't be afraid to be predictable with it; make your opponent prove he can handle a certain serve before you decide to mix it up. Variety is never an end in itself.

2. Return
As with the serve, Nadal’s return doesn’t appear to be one of his strengths at first glance. He’s often forced to take his second hand off his backhand and slice back a high floater, which immediately puts him on the defensive. But again, Nadal makes up for that weakness with his return tactics.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in his second-round match at Wimbledon in 2008 against Ernests Gulbis. Nadal lost the first set 7-5 in large part because of Gulbis’ ability to consistently fire first serves in the 120-–130-m.p.h. range. At the start of the second set, Nadal took a couple of big steps backward, giving himself an extra millisecond to react on his return. He won the next three sets. Afterward, Gulbis said he had been thrown off by a change in Nadal’s tactics, but couldn’t figure out what the Spaniard was doing differently.

And unlike, say, James Blake, you’ll almost never see Nadal go for an outright winner on his return. He knows that, with few players following their serves to the net, he can be just as offensive, and much safer, hitting a high topspin forehand into his opponent’s backhand side and working his way into the point from there.

Lessons: (1) Always evaluate your return position—if nothing else, this will keep your mind working, and not worrying—and don’t be afraid to change it mid-match. (2) Never try for an outright winner on your return. Start by getting the ball back in play to your opponent's weaker side. The goal should be to neutralize the serve and work to create a higher-percentage shot before you pull the trigger.

3. Volley
Nadal is no net-rusher in singles, which may come as a surprise to anyone who has seen him play doubles. There he puts his aggressive instincts on display, relishing the close-range volley battles that doubles produces.

But those instincts still serve him well in singles. Nadal typically comes to the net after hitting a strong approach and getting his opponent on the run. This allows him to take most of his volleys from an offensive position and above net level. The key for him is to put the ball away immediately and not let his opponent get a crack at a pass. Nadal takes care of this in two ways. First, he keeps his volley stroke extraordinarily simple; rather than a “punch,” which is what a player is taught to think when he hits a volley, Nadal, particularly on his forehand side, pares it down even more. He essentially taps the ball into the open court.

Nadal brings his racquet all the way up, until it’s almost perpendicular with the surface, so he can hit down on the ball. He knows he’s not a power volleyer and that if he’s at the net, his opponent is typically out of position, so he concentrates on using sharp, short angles that keep the ball out of the others guy’s reach

Lessons: (1) Think control, rather than pace, on your volleys. (2) Keep your take-back as short as possible. (3) Use sharp angles whenever you can to keep your opponent from getting a second or third look at a pass.

4. Backhand
One reason Nadal won Wimbledon last year was his improved backhand. He flattened it out and used it as a weapon. For the most part, though, it remains a rally shot, one that helps him set up his vaunted forehand. Still, as time has gone on, Nadal, with his usual tinkering, has found ways to throw off his opponents by changing spin, speed, and depth with his backhand.

“It’s tough,” Sam Querrey said after losing to Nadal at the U.S. Open last fall, “because he gives you that [backhand] chip and he almost tempts you to come in. . . . He’s kind of just edging you on a little bit. It’s tough to deal with.” Querrey was referring to how Nadal takes the air out of a hard-hit ball by gently slicing it back in the vicinity of the service line. It forces his opponent to deal with a new spin and hit up on the ball, as well as making him hesitate before deciding whether to come in or not. Nadal knows he’s good enough to track down nearly any approach, and if it isn’t perfect, to send back a passing shot.

Lessons: (1) Be willing to mix up not only the direction of your ground strokes—i.e., crosscourt or down the line—but also their depth. (2) A low, short slice may not be an aggressive play, but it’s an uncomfortable shot for your opponent to deal with.

5. Drop Shot
For a bruiser, Nadal has a first-class touch game. He has great hands at net and on drop shots, but it’s the way he uses his touch game that makes it so consistent and effective.

Nadal has two types of drop shots. The first is a change of pace that comes in the middle of a rally. He’ll slice severely under his backhand and land the ball short, but not because he thinks he can win the point outright with it. Instead, he gives it plenty of clearance over the net and follows it forward. His opponent is forced to hit up on the ball and Nadal is there to intercept it with a volley into the open court.

Nadal uses a different type of drop shot when he has the advantage in a rally and is hitting from well inside the baseline. On those occasions, he’ll often get in position for a forehand, come under it at the last second, and drop it without too much spin into the center of the service box for a winner.

As with his serve, return, and volley, the key to Nadal’s drop shot is its safety. Yes, he has great touch, but the other reason he rarely misses this shot is that, first and foremost, he makes sure the ball clears the net. Unlike Andy Murray, who in the past has gone to the drop-shot well too often, Nadal tries to win a point with his drop only when he can do it without having to make the shot a spectacular one.

Lessons: (1) The first step to hitting an effective drop shot is clearing the net. (2) If you have your opponent scrambling, follow your drop shot all the way in so you can cut off his floating reply. (3) Only try to win a point outright with a drop shot when you don’t have to be spectacular with it.

6. Mind Game
We’ve heard and read a lot about Nadal’s mental strengths. But last week at work TENNIS Magazine’s editor, James Martin, and I watched him celebrate after winning an early round match in Rome—he looked like he couldn’t possibly have been any happier. We agreed that we’d never seen any player show so much so joy in winning with such regularity. This outlook must contribute to Nadal's ability to keep winning match after match and tournament after tournament on clay. He never lets winning feel routine, like a job. He rewards himself with a little reveling, no matter who he’s beaten or what round it is.

Whether Nadal thinks of it this way or not, his post-match revelry is another reminder to himself of why he’s out there. As I said before here, his fist-pumps and vamoses are a way of keeping his desire to win tangible—something he can always feel—and aspirational, rather than a given. Note that he doesn't just do this after breaking serve or drilling an impossible winner. At one point against Djokovic, Nadal was down 15-30 on his serve, and a tiny momentum shift toward his opponent seemed possible. Nadal won the next point with a service winner. When Djokovic's return landed wide, the Spaniard let out a short, scratchy, but easily audible vamos,  while adding a truncated but determined fist-pump. Nadal hadn't just won a point, he'd made that point seem important to everyone in the arena, including himself and his opponent. He eventually held.

Nadal approaches each match as if winning it is a new goal line to cross, rather than something to be afraid of losing. In this sense, he’s like Michael Jordan, who set out to prove himself again every day. But Nadal's ambition isn’t as hard-edged as Jordan’s. Rafa doesn’t want to embarrass his opponent (unless, perhaps, his name is Soderling); he wants more than anything to feel that addictive sense of joy and relief that we all feel every time we win a tennis match. Allowing himself to soak that feeling in for a second gives him one more reason to try his absolute best to make it happen. I said earlier that the old-school way to win has always been to act like you’ve been there before. Nadal has successfully turned that on its head. He wins by acting like he’s never been there before.

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Posted by Mirko 337 05/04/2009 at 06:57 PM


Posted by mirko337 05/04/2009 at 07:01 PM

again and again and again...great writing from you Steve!

Posted by bluesunflower 05/04/2009 at 07:13 PM

You surpass yourself with your posts about Rafa. Always finding a new angle to write about Rafa, so that it never feels old. I know as a Rafa fan I am biased and if you wrote 'Rafa rules' I would think that was the height of prose. But seriosly great post.

Posted by frances 05/04/2009 at 07:14 PM

steve i waited for you and u never disappoint!!!!!

Posted by charles 05/04/2009 at 07:22 PM

That was totally fantastic! Great insight!!

Posted by tps1 05/04/2009 at 07:24 PM


Posted by charles 05/04/2009 at 07:24 PM

"keep your mind working not worrying" is pretty much the best tennis advice, ever...

Posted by Mellicent 05/04/2009 at 07:27 PM

I agree completely. He's engaging when he plays no? Not to mention the humility and courteousness that he displays.

Great Job Steve!!!

Posted by Master Ace 05/04/2009 at 07:29 PM

Good article about Rafael and why he is number 1 by a good margin.

Posted by Philip 05/04/2009 at 07:31 PM

I think your last paragraph pinpoints the reason why I like to watch Nadal play more than I enjoy watching Federer even though overall If I had a choice I would model my game after Federer's game technically speaking.

Posted by TennisMama 05/04/2009 at 07:35 PM


I am not worthy (of such an insightful and pleasurable read!) You're THE MAN!

Now only if I can remember the lessons above the next time I'm on court...(and execute all your pointers!)

Posted by Novela Nadalesca/Celia 05/04/2009 at 07:46 PM

Wow, that was an amazing post. I loved the pointers after the strokes you talked about too. And as a tennis player, it is true when you do a little celebration to remind yourself what you're there for. I actually got that from Rafa. Whenever I'm down in a match I get very fustrated and usually can't get back. But recently if I win a good point I do a little fist pump, so much so that it kind of looks like I'm making a fist with my left hand, and say a very quiet yes. I try to not let my opponents see it so they don't get mad, but it really helps just to let myself know that I made a good shot and that I will do better.

Posted by Carrie 05/04/2009 at 07:50 PM

Wow- wow- wow.

Loved this article Steve. I love how you look for things to write about when many writers say there may be nothing new to add. That is a great attribute for a writer.

*. I said earlier that the old-school way to win has always been to act like you’ve been there before. Nadal has successfully turned that on its head. He wins by acting like he’s never been there before.*

A fabulous point right here. One thing I like about Rafa is that he does not take wins for granted. While everyone else may be expecting for him to win- he seems to view each win as a pleasant gift.

Posted by sgqx 05/04/2009 at 07:52 PM

Bravo, Steve!

Posted by imjimmy 05/04/2009 at 07:56 PM

""Pete lamented that Rafa’s new look had changed him from an intimidating muscle car to a safe and conventional Volvo. To which I can only say that every Saturday as a kid I used to see a doctor who lived up the hill from us burn down our street at twice the speed limit in his sharp-featured, dark-green, Modish, mid-60s Volvo sedan. Cars don’t come any cooler than that.""

That's brilliant!! A fitting reply to all that rigmarole about Rafa's clothing.

""".he looked like he couldn’t prossibly have been any happier. We ageed that we’d never seen any player show so much so joy in winning with such regularity....He never lets winning feel routine, ...He wins by acting like he’s never been there before"""

That's probably one of the big reasons for his success: the ability to live in the moment and find joy in it, after every point and after every match.

Posted by lynne (rafalite) 05/04/2009 at 07:57 PM

You deserve a degree of the highest for that article Steve.

Posted by TennisFan2 05/04/2009 at 08:00 PM

Too good again Steve. I'll have to print this lesson and stick it my tennis bag.

I have never been a Djoko fan but I am impressed by his play against Nadal in the last two finals. I hope he continues to play well (and lays off the trainer calls) as I think he and Rafa could have some really great matches in the future.

I enjoy this new breed of player that can be both the passionate athlete and the polite tennis player. It's so much fun to watch!

Posted by sfumato1002 05/04/2009 at 08:02 PM

Nice Article...This is the first time I read positive things about Rafas game...before it was always about what Federer needs to do to beat Rafa...never did nobody mention what Rafa WAS DOING AND WHY HE WAS WINNING.

A+ Article and great tips..thank you!

Posted by sn 05/04/2009 at 08:02 PM

A proper analysis of Rafa's game??!! And not just in comparison to Fed?? Surely not!! Steve, for this and so many other articles, you are simply the best tennis writer around! I love the fact you find so many interesting ways of writing about what's going on without ever seeming like you're going over the same old things again and again or losing site of facts for opinion.

One of the most interesting things about the Rafa-Novak rivalry recently is that their relationship seems to have really improved. It seems like they are both enjoying the tussle as much as we are.

Posted by Katri 05/04/2009 at 08:08 PM

It is such a pleasure reading your posts. Makes me feel so grateful I live in the internet age, cause otherwise I'd be missing out on them.

I was sure there wouldn't be a Rafa post for long, but you proved me wrong and such a pleasure for us fans to read with lots of interesting points. I am especially impressed by the mind game section, also on a shift sportmanship code in tennis, interesting :-)

Posted by Blake 05/04/2009 at 08:14 PM

Great article Steve!! Please'd you didn't go down the McGrogan path and actually priased the man/found something insightful to say!!!

Posted by Aabye 05/04/2009 at 08:22 PM

Ace, Mr. Tignor. Yes, I agree whole-heartedly about the Djokovic-Nadal match-up. And for the first time in a long time, I hope it isn't Nadal-Federer in the RG final.

Posted by Aurora 05/04/2009 at 08:44 PM

Great writing, Steve! Thank you for giving us very specific insights into what makes Rafa's game so good.

Posted by cysportsgirl 05/04/2009 at 08:47 PM

great article...really brought rafa into perspective for me...i don't know the technical ins and outs as well, but this really shone a light on the technique behind rafa.

also, excellent call on the sportsmanship. i hope next year people finally realize he is the true sportsman on the courts and has been since he started...watching his energy is why his fans love him.

Posted by teejustice 05/04/2009 at 08:53 PM

Great article Steve! Many have said it, but it's worth repeating. Love the analysis of Rafa's game on its own merits as well as thoughts the Rome final.

Posted by Carol 05/04/2009 at 08:54 PM

Steve, I love your post, thank you!!!!

Posted by SwissMaestro 05/04/2009 at 08:55 PM


Simply outstanding. The same goes for Nadal for everything you pointed out in this post. I hope Roger Federer finds that fire burning inside of him once again.

Posted by NDMS 05/04/2009 at 08:57 PM

Steve writes: As far as yesterday’s match, I didn’t see anything to make me think Djokovic is any closer to solving the eternal riddle of Nadal on clay.


Thank you for a new well-written article on Nadal.

Djokovic is a short-point first-strike player and between him, Nadal and Murray, he wins hands down the “Most Likely to Attempt to End the Point First” award. His clutch game is not a study of patience.

When Nadal gets tight, he still has a passive but mid-percentage fallback position. The worst he will do is give you short balls which means you still have to go for it to win the point. If you don’t win it at the first whack, Nadal will play it back. If you don’t win it at the second whack, the ball will come back. In short, the ball is always in your court.

But when Djokovic gets tight or impatient, he attempts nervy desperation dropshots with a 25% net clearance rate and he pulls the trigger at half-cocked positions. And that’s usually enough for one break of serve.

The 1st set tiebreak is a perfect microcosm of Djokovic's trigger-happy play versus Nadal's safe play:

2 dropshots that failed to clear the net, an overcooked forecourt BH drive off a short ball, a missed down-the-line BH, a wild cc FH off a short return. The worst mistake was the 2nd dropshot down 2-6. Djokovic played it at only the 5th stroke of a rally. So, he not only lost the TB but by not winning at least one point of his last two serves, he handed Nadal the decided advantage of serving first in the second set.

Djokovic needs a patient and judicious balance of offense and defense and maybe he’ll have a shot on clay.

If I can give Djokovic only one advice, it will be: If you're in doubt and tense, just put the ball back in play.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 05/04/2009 at 09:00 PM

Steve Amazing post!

Giving us fans more insight to Rafa and his winning ways.

Looking forward to your further posts regarding Rafa

Please keep it up!

Posted by PA Tom 05/04/2009 at 09:05 PM

6. Will to Win

I don't think 6 should have been titled mind game.

Again, great writing about my fav player.

Posted by CPM 05/04/2009 at 09:07 PM

Too good, Tignor; too good.

You're just knocking these Rafa posts outta the park.

Posted by maedal (Vamos Rafa and the Armada!) 05/04/2009 at 09:14 PM

Steve, thanks again for writing about Rafa. Although I don't play tennis and therefore can't put the rules into use, I appreciate your analyses. They'll help me appreciate what I see when I watch Rafa play again--online, on TV, in person (French Open this summer!) or on one of my (many) DVDs of his matches.

Really superb writing, both in form and content!

Posted by Finn 05/04/2009 at 09:14 PM

I have always loved players that show their emotion - Connors, Agassi, and now Rafa. I'm glad to see someone finally say it's okay for tennis players to show their emotion (in a positive way). It makes matches much more enjoyable to watch. How can we expect these athletes to stand out there for hours every day without emotion when they have their careers on the line? Do the rest of us?

Posted by Grace 05/04/2009 at 09:18 PM

This article made for supreme "after hours" reading. I take my hat off to you Mr Tignor, or is that Sir Tignor? I find myself hanging onto your every written word; in the same way that I find myself anxiously waiting for the next Rafa-inclusive tournament.

Bravo. I await your next article with breath that is bated.

Posted by Toni 05/04/2009 at 09:20 PM


no one writes with such knowledge and insight about the game as you do!! Your work is just immense pleasure to read and great contribution to this sport and to all the young and aspiring players out there for sure.
Thank you for the analysis of Nadal's game. Unfortunately, it's not something we get to read about very often, as the majority of others just sink into the stereotypes and stay there.

Thank you and kudos!!!

Posted by Bibi 05/04/2009 at 09:21 PM

Thank you so much Steve. I am a Nole fan but admire Nadal for his talent, strength, desire and discipline...also this is the very first time that I have read positive analysis of Novak's on court behavior. I am looking forward to watching future matches in between those two, their chemistry is incredibly alluring.

Posted by thebigapple 05/04/2009 at 09:28 PM

Nice article.

Posted by Pspace 05/04/2009 at 09:32 PM

Nice one, Steve. Lots of stuff to chew on. Not sure if I agree on the bit about the serve:

Lessons: (1) Even without natural power on your serve, you can be just as effective by concentrating on accuracy and hitting very specific targets. (2) Don't be afraid to be predictable with it; make your opponent prove he can handle a certain serve before you decide to mix it up. Variety is never an end in itself.

There's obviously some tradeoff between the reward for placement vs pace and spin. No point in a well-place lollipop, as an extreme example. Murray has often cited the spin on Nadal's serve as what gives him the most trouble, and I think that does more damage than the placement per se. Though, in the case of Federer, it's a combination of the two, i.e., the kick to the backhand.

I think what's more important in Nadal's case is the relatively low jump that he has while serving. This lets him get back on the ground quicker, and prep faster for the second shot. He starts many of the rallies in neutral position, and it's his dominance from the baseline that gets the job done.

In short, if I wanted to learn some aspect of serving from Nadal, I'd try to figure out how to get that much kick, and failing that how to play from the baseline like him. Since both are impossible for me, I figured I'd look at other means.

I totally agree with the rest of the tips.

Posted by frances 05/04/2009 at 09:34 PM

STEVE THANKS SO MUCH!!!there's always 2 things i very much like in your writing. (1) You have a commanding first sentence and of course the title that is eye catching to readers and (2) most importantly you always manage to finished your blogs with the most intriguing final sentence that always leaves me in awe. I suggest you should write a book about rafa!! or like a short novel book!!! LOL

Kidding aside, I very much enjoy your thought's on rafa's style of play. i have read enough articles on how to defeat him and this is just so refreshing to reaffirm that his wins are no flukes. He really is a great tennis player and seeing Djokovic react on incredable shots is just soooo entertaining.

BTW, i for one would like to see a nadal djokovic final at RG (no question ofcourse i want my rafa to win) because like you said, they really look like they are meant to play each other with their styles and antics!! I love seeing rafa when he is at that zen mode-like he's 100% total concentration when he's playing and i never get tired of seeing his great shots!!! I always feel like he invents one unique shot almost every game. and I am really fond of Djokovic as of late-- he's mental tenacity has improved (manifested in his game over fed and even in nadals 1st set) and he's expressions are jsut priceless... and i think he conducted very well as a looser.. i hope he continues this.. and ofcourse i hope he will win tournaments!

thanks again steve!!!!!

Posted by linex 05/04/2009 at 09:34 PM

Congrats Steve on a great article.

Posted by frances 05/04/2009 at 09:37 PM

PS steve

By the way-- you didnt give an obvious lesson to learn in your last point.. the"mind game" point:P i guess because it's not something u just can teach someone.. THAN/ks steve ur the man!!!

Posted by Seven 05/04/2009 at 09:41 PM

Two thumbs up! Been waiting for that post and it delivered. Like Nadal, Mr. Steve Tignor is the bomb!

Count down to the French Open continues..........

Posted by Arun 05/04/2009 at 09:45 PM

at the risk of adding some cliche, this is yet another fantastic piece from you, Steve.

Posted by Denizen 05/04/2009 at 09:50 PM

Steve, yet another insightful article. I love both your simple yet elegant style and your technical analysis. It's been a delight to witness the ascendancy of Rafa, Nole and Murray, who indeed bring passion, all-around skill and tactics, and (usually) courtesy to the game. The next few years should be a real treat for tennis fans.

Posted by dnrood 05/04/2009 at 10:04 PM

Excellent article Steve. You pretty much nailed why Rafa has become so good and the application of his strenghts for all tennis players/fans was awesome.

As far as the celebrating I never was offended by Rafa's show of emotions, which is strange because I would consider myself an "Old School Guy". I hate watching the manufactured and planned celebrations of NFL players, and yet Rafa's celebrations never bothered me and actually made me a bigger fan. I think that's because with Rafa the fist pumps, chest thumps, and Vamoses seem genuine and a part of his competitive personality.

Every competitor should take note of how Rafa handles adversity. He never dwells on bad play, but just keeps pushing forward. He weathers his own bad play or opponents good play until he either improves form or finds a tactic that works for him. I think this is part of his great mental strength.

Lastly, Steve wrote in Tennis Magazine about Rafa's ability to ignore negative momentum in a match as one of his strongest qualities. I think Nadal's style of play along with his mental makeup is what produces this most rare of qualities.

Posted by Karen 05/04/2009 at 10:11 PM

Thanks a million, Steve! That's explained why I keep checking web from Sunday to Monday for this terrific article, and the waiting is really worth. Thanks so much!

Posted by Miss Sydney 05/04/2009 at 10:11 PM

Wowie....what a great read!

At the moment I can't get enough of reading about Rafa - the last paragraph on "mind games" was brilliant and so accurate. I stayed up to 3am watching Rafa win the Rome final and seeing him celebrate the win made it all worthwhile!

He even inspired me to buy a new racquet yesterday.....Babolat of course!!

Can't wait for RG 09.....

Posted by sG 05/04/2009 at 10:17 PM

Wonderful! Absolutely marvelous stuff, Steve! Reading your articles are always a pure pleasure. I particularly enjoyed the breakdown of aspects of Rafa's game. I know it must be tedious for you guys but seeing more of that about players in fantastic matches would be much appreciated. The analysis is insightful and a fun read to boot. Again, excellent job, Steve! You are without a doubt one of my favorite sport writers.

Posted by sG 05/04/2009 at 10:31 PM

Oh, I want to add something about Djokovic. He is not a favorite player of mine. In fact I found some of his antics quite annoying. This year I've found myself hoping he'd find his way out of 'the wilderness' as it were, particularly because too many seemed intent on writing his tennis obituary. Perhaps this new found sympathy adjusted my tennis lens but watching him against Nadal this past weekend was a real pleasure. I wanted Nadal to win, of course, but seeing Djokovic smile openly at his good shots, smile incredulously at Nadal's incredulous shots, or express exasperation brought an additional energy to the match. His demonstrativeness complemented Nadal's dogged intensity very well. The sight of the two laughing and joking together made me smile -- it was a lovely bit of spontaneous post-match sportsmanship. Very nice indeed.

Posted by MonaLisa 05/04/2009 at 10:38 PM

I agree!! Great article!.....

I am a Rafanatic but I always wonder why he can never serve an ace when he desparetly needs it, and why he keeps slicing that ball?!! I always get nervous when he plays the slice bcos i think he will end up losing the point....but your article set me straight!!....fron now on I will just let Rafa play his game..... my mother always gets mad at me for that!!!!!!!!

Posted by sia . 05/04/2009 at 10:47 PM

Well Mr. Tignor,
I do play tennis so thanks for the tips. I also drive a Volvo, but don't think I'd ever be described as conventional. Great article. I wasn't so impressed with the Rome final although I enjoy watching Djokovic in general. (I keep comparing it with Rome 06, i think)
I think we are all really impressed with your Rafa coverage, please continue.
I do hope that there are a few fist pumps of your own going on in front of your computer
Vamos Steve

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 05/04/2009 at 10:54 PM

Miss Sydney Welcome to my world,I also live in Sydney,Oz, yes I totally understand your point of view with the time zones etc.

Hey but at the end of the day its worth every dark circle and baggy eye lid to watch Rafa play. lol!

Posted by steven 05/04/2009 at 10:56 PM


Thanks for the article! One word - BRILLIANT!

Posted by wimby moon 05/04/2009 at 11:06 PM

Simply wonderful writing, Steve. You've done it again.
Where some writers remain doggedly blind to the wonders of Rafa's amazing game you give it the attention it so richly deserves and provide us with this deep, thoughtful, thorough and extremely useful examination. Well thought out and beautifully expressed!!! Your articles on Rafa will always be welcome like rain in the desert. Enough with the endless articles about how to beat Rafa -- as if somehow something must be wrong for him to be winning so much. Thanks for taking the road less traveled.

Posted by Sasha Slater 05/04/2009 at 11:08 PM

This is the best analysis of Nadal and his game I have ever read. Wonderfully written. Just superb. Vamos!

Posted by miri 05/04/2009 at 11:27 PM

Wonderful article - as usual. It's cliche, but I've always thought that when Rafa says he loves to compete, he means it. He doesn't mean "I love to win" like so many people do when they say that. For him, the competition is the joy.

Posted by rafadoc 05/04/2009 at 11:32 PM

Steve: Brilliant! What a great break down of Rafa's game and strengths, and lessons for those who aspire to improve their own game. I like your discussion and Querry's input on the back hand slice too. That shot gets some criticism but I see how it frustrates taller opponents AND impatient ones. He uses it to change up rhythm and also to bye time to get back into position.

Thanks again Steve! Well. Done.

Posted by ClauClau 05/04/2009 at 11:39 PM

Wow. Wonderful post, hands down the best analysis of Rafa's game that I've ever read. Thanks Steve.

Posted by raul 05/04/2009 at 11:40 PM

very good article steve!!!
i was just thinking that almost a year ago in the hamburg semis nadal and djokovic played with the #2 spot on the line and nadal kept his second place in three sets of scintilating tennis.
twelve months later djokovic loses his #3 spot , falls to #4 and nadal is the top dog

what will it be like in twelve months from now?

Posted by marcela 05/04/2009 at 11:51 PM

Thank you Steve. This was a wonderful post.

sG @ 10:31
"The sight of the two laughing and joking together made me smile -- it was a lovely bit of spontaneous post-match sportsmanship. Very nice indeed."

I agree. Seeing Novak and Rafa truly enjoy themselves during the trophy ceremony was a treat. I would love to see them in the RG final this year, bringing out the best in each other and displaying good sportmanship. And, if anything, just to see how they interact during the trophy ceremony.

Posted by Heidie 05/05/2009 at 12:09 AM

You are definetely the man!!!! For a moment there I thought I was not going to be able to delve into a warm molten because other tennis writers thought there was nothing more to say about Rafa and everyone was getting bored about his winning streak. You just changed that! Halleluyah for the orgasmic writing. For many years I've studied behaviors and I have seen Rafa's many sides. His feet stomping while he is taking in the first intake of his energy booster before the game and how that stomping is a symbol of his focus in the game. He stops doing it when he's "out of the game" and that does not happen often. His body language dictates how deep he's into his match and if you notice that you will have noticed a completely new body language during his Soderling match. You knew he really wanted to get back at this guy and yes... it was personal... still is. I just had to love it. When he's not focused he will tend to look into the crowds and his sight is distracted (US Open vs Blake; AO vs name a few). I can continue to mention many more but you summarized everything in your last statement...he acts as if he had not been there before. Gotta love that.

BTW, do you think Fed lost to Djokovic because he knew that if he got to the final he couldn't take another beating by Rafa and couldn't manage another press room of journalist asking the same questions...Has Rafa gotten to you? Do you think it was easier for him to accept losing to Djokovic than having to accept losing to Rafa? Don't know why, but the thought came to mind during the 2nd set of his game.

Posted by heidie 05/05/2009 at 12:24 AM

Simply orgasmic!!! I was already wondering why I was only reading a simple "news" of Rafa's victory and if anyone was going to indulge me at all!! Halleluyah for Steve!! You are the man..definetely superb writing. It's even better than a warm Molten!! I've read everything about Nadal... but you seem to capture his very essence. I thought I was a NadalFreak because I was always studying his behaviors...but I just discovered I am not the only one!!! There is also a "read between the lines" with his foot stomping before and during change ups. Have you noticed it determines how focused he's in the game? Have you noticed how he looks into the crowd prior to recieving the ball when he's distracted and "out of focus"? (US Open vs Blake, AO vs Tsonga, to name a few, well it's really hasn't happen that many times). he hardly ever looks into the crowd prior to recieving..his eyes are completely "in the match". Observe...

His body language was also completely different during his Soderling match. You knew he really wanted to destroy the guy. His look was went beyond being focused... it was personal. Also, notice during the changeovers.... most of the time he allows his opponents to take their seat first if they are crossing sides... he didn't do this with Soderling... he went in first. I wonder if its conscioulsy? Anyway, thanks for the rules, for your gift of writing about my all time favorite tennis player. I look forward to many more ATP Master Shields and many more GS Titles!!!!

BTW, it crossed my mind during Fed's second set vs. Screech (Saved by the bell) if he subconsciously lost that match because it was easier to lose to Nole than to take another beating by Rafa. It was easier to talk to the press about his semi-finals then all the media would place their attention at the finals the following day rather than to take another beating from Rafa and have the media ask him again... Has Rafa gotten to you? And his loss be the "topic" post tournament vs Rafa is the best on clay.

Posted by abbey 05/05/2009 at 12:58 AM

I've often read people ask that if you're to teach someone how to play tennis, do you teach them to play like Roger or to play like Rafa. Meaning, Roger's strokes are the convention, while Rafa's are so unorthodox that it's impossible to teach and copy them. But tennis is so much more than about strokes, and you've nailed it down here beautifully how there's so much to learn from Rafa's special brand of tennis. So yeah, if I had a kid who would want to learn tennis, I'd teach him to play like Rafa.

On another note, your no. 6 is so spot on about Rafa. But what I also noticed from the Rome finals was Uncle Toni's match point celebration. I never expect that Rafa would ever be blasé about his victories, but I thought that at some point, Uncle Toni would feel like another Rafa victory (especially on clay) is just another day in the office for him, so I was pleasantly surprised to see him celebrate the way he did in Rome. Well, I really should have known better. After all, Rafa is Rafa in large part because of Uncle Toni.

Posted by Chris 05/05/2009 at 01:10 AM

Absolutely terrific article.

Posted by chinkyv 05/05/2009 at 01:37 AM

Steve, will you marry me????

Ok sorry for the random proposal. But I have been studying for finals almost all day and I think my head is about to explode. But I kinda do mean it. This piece really made my night. Had been checking your blog since Sunday after the final, even though I knew you probably wouldn't have posted anything 5 mins after the final had ended, but hey... I was excited to read about what you would write. So as is my daily (I mean hourly or less) ritual, I kept checking here to see when you would post it [meanwhile, I really should join Twitter at this rate since you always "tweet" about any new post] but anyway, I digress.

So what was I saying?? Oh how much I adored this post! Hell yes I did! I used to play tennis in high school. and played again for the first time last summer after like 8 yrs! I joked to my friends that I didn't remember if I had a one-handed or two-handed backhand! But my point is, my memory on technique is not as sharp as some other posters here. But I loved your new take on Rafa and the way he plays and it gave some great insight to things I see but can't really express so well. So KUDOS STEVE!!!!!! Great post.

YOU ARE THE MAN!!!!! And I will refrain from proposing to you again as I know it might seem a bit much. But my friends know its how I express my excitement over things. So do not be alarmed...


Posted by ddd 05/05/2009 at 01:57 AM

Great post! Like others I have been visiting this site every few hours since the Sunday final in anticipation of your post.

Posted by Jimbo 05/05/2009 at 01:59 AM

Sublime, insightful post, Steve.
Thank you.

Posted by Voltaire 05/05/2009 at 02:01 AM


One word..Fabulous! You did what even Fed couldn't do....get into the Mind of Rafa to understand what he thinks and how he executes unerringly a million times....I guess even Rafa can't disagree too much! I've one pet peeve though.....even when Rafa gets real short balls to his forehand he doesn't whack/crash winners from inside the court.....too much safety perhaps. For a contrast watch Verdasco....just blasts through! Rafa may prove to be even more durable GS winner because of his unalloyed joy n essential humility.
Vamos Rafa....Vamos Steve!

Posted by Mathilda 05/05/2009 at 02:16 AM

Wow.. Took the breath out of me...Really great..

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 05/05/2009 at 02:38 AM

Hey everyone. :)

*loves the "New Sportsmanship"* - and we do forget that Rafa was seen as an upstart for a while at the beginning.

"To which I can only say that every Saturday as a kid I used to see a doctor who lived up the hill from us burn down our street at twice the speed limit in his sharp-featured, dark-green, Modish, mid-60s Volvo sedan. I've never thought that cars came any cooler than that." - *giggles*

"For a bruiser, Nadal has a first-class touch game. He has great hands at net and on drop shots, but it’s the way he uses his touch game that makes it so consistent and effective." - I liked reading this, this aspect of Nadal's game still seems underrated to me.

"Rafa doesn’t want to embarrass his opponent (unless, perhaps, his name is Soderling); he wants more than anything to feel that addictive sense of joy and relief that we all feel every time we win a tennis match. Allowing himself to soak that feeling in for a second gives him one more reason to try his absolute best to make it happen. I said earlier that the old-school way to win has always been to act like you’ve been there before. Nadal has successfully turned that on its head. He wins by acting like he’s never been there before."

That is just so good, I can't find any words of praise really. :) And so simple. In a way Rafa turns everything on its reason I love to watch him so, so much.

Posted by Really 05/05/2009 at 03:08 AM

Thanks, Steve. Fantastic, fantastic article and analysis.

"I said earlier that the old-school way to win has always been to act like you’ve been there before. Nadal has successfully turned that on its head. He wins by acting like he’s never been there before." I love that last past. You always go out with a bang. So true.

Posted by 05/05/2009 at 04:21 AM

Nice article my friend. I was wondering, with seemingly out of the way, do you Djokovic/Nadal is here to stay? Or Nadals motivation his only real competition?

Posted by 05/05/2009 at 04:22 AM

Seemingly Federer, sorry

Posted by Melanie 05/05/2009 at 04:32 AM

Wow that post has really made my night. Ive been wanting to read a decent article about Rome since the final and in the media down here in New Zealand there has been pretty much nothing, its like oh yeah Nadal won again in Rome. Come on give the guy some credit. Ive always been a fan since I saw him in the final in Auckland in 2004 against Herbarty, here was someone with so much energy and power, and he just was so 'cool' - there is no other word for it. he had the wow factor. For years now Ive been defending him, I forget how many times Ive heard that hes only a clay court player, that he will burn out, thats he's a one hit wonder, that he doesnt have the shots etc etc. Well guess who turned out to be wrong? Guts and determination and a big heart usually succeed and in Rafa's case he sure proves that. It seems that the media in most places arent really into Rafa, for years in the commentary of RG all I hear is what Federer has to do to win, but hey what does Rafa have to do to win?

So its lovely to act read something like this, that really puts everything into perspective and gives the guy some credit for playing so well, and creating history. History that may not be repeated for a very long time.

I try to watch as many of his matches as I can, which is not easy when you 12 hours ahead of GMT, but my work mates get used to me showing up blurry eyed and happy on Monday mornings. Its a privilege to watch him play, and it was joyous to watch him utterly destroy Soderling!

So thanks Steve for an inspirational post, I too have to study, and this has fired me up to get stuck into that tonight.


Posted by sic (¡este chico es Pata Negra!) 05/05/2009 at 04:41 AM

Great piece of writing Steve, Rafa fans have been waiting for something like this since your IW wrap up -thank you!

I appreciate your thoughts about Nadal's serve, I think that many people lose sight of the fact that although he can't serve many aces, Rafa's is still one of the most effective servers on the tour -if you go by winning % on first and (more importantly) second serve. Fans have to accept that Rafa will never be a great server in the style of Roddick or Federer, just put that out of your minds, it's never going to happen. Instead, learn to appreciate how masterfully Rafa manages his service games. First the variety of the serve (the pace, spin, placement); the little surprises he saves for the big points (did he just serve down the T for a service winner on AD out?!) and of course the way he uses a minimal advantage to take control of the point.

I do disagree that Rafa and Novak always play loose. I think that's just wrong. Rafa played incredibly tight at the end of the first set at Rome and BOTH players were really tight throughout the second set. I suspect that they respect each other so much that it affects the quality of play. But even playing tight, they came up with some incredibly entertaining points in the second.

Posted by sic (¡este chico es Pata Negra!) 05/05/2009 at 04:46 AM

I also agree that it's fun to watch Rafa and Novak play each other because of their contrasting personalities. Despite being nervous, I was laughing and applauding that impossible shoe-string volley Novak came up with in the second set (I can't remember which game). Rafa had just rocketed a passing shot down near Novak's ankle and Novak just stuck his racket down there and accidentally put it exactly right. Gorgeous cc volley winner. Novak kind of looked dazed when he realized that he hit the impossible winner and he slowly turned around like a zombie, but then it seemed to dawn on him what had happened and he let this mischievous grin spread across his face as he walked to the baseline. I was pissed, but I was laughing too.

Great stuff. Of course, it helps that Rafa won in the end.

Posted by sic (¡este chico es Pata Negra!) 05/05/2009 at 04:50 AM

Heidie @ 12:24 AM

I also noticed that Rafa was not waiting to let Soderling cross over first during changeovers, as he almost always does with his opponents. I think it was on purpose. Still Rafa can never really be mean, after the match he leaned way over the net to make sure that the handshake happened, and he even patted Robin on the back. I doubt that Soderling liked either gesture, but I do believe that Rafa offered them genuinely. He's just a negative person.

Posted by Charlie 05/05/2009 at 04:50 AM

just curious- why might Rafa want to embarrass Soderling?

Posted by abbey 05/05/2009 at 04:57 AM

sic, i noticed that too! that rafa, so mean! ;)

Posted by sic (¡este chico es Pata Negra!) 05/05/2009 at 04:58 AM

Charlie, go back and watch their Wimbledon 2007 match, the one that was spread out over three days because of rain delays. It was a tight match and both players were extra tense due to the delays. At one point late in the match Soderling started behaving like a jerk (we later found out that most players don't like him because he is a jerk in the locker room as well).

This is what he did: Rafa was getting ready to serve, taking his time as he always does. Soderling decided to show him up for serving slowly so he ran over to change his racquet while Rafa was looking down. Rafa went into his service motion before he realized that Soderling wasn't there. The crowd of course started laughing. It was lame. When Soderling came back, Rafa started to go back into his routine, but then he showed Soderling the balls and said "new balls" (apparently, Soderling is notorious for not telling his opponents that he is serving with new balls, which is considered bad tennis etiquette). Soderling got very angry at this so he started pulling at his shorts in an exaggerated manner to make fun of Rafa's most famous tic. The crowd was roaring in laughter throughout this exchange.

Neither player, however, was laughing.

Until Rafa got that last laugh by winning that match and handing Soderling a 6-1, 6-0 beat down in their very next meeting, which occurred the other day at Barcelona (or was it MC, I already forgot).

Posted by sic (¡este chico es Pata Negra!) 05/05/2009 at 05:00 AM

Oops in my 8:45 post I meant to say that "he's just NOT a negative person" - referring to Rafa, but I guess it works as is if you understand that statement to be directed at Soderling.

Rafa is NOT a negative person.

Soderling IS a negative person.

Posted by Charlie 05/05/2009 at 05:03 AM

sic- thanks, great story! So Rafa can bite back a little (the 'new balls' bit)? I like it. Didn't see much of Wimbledon 07, so a trip to youtube might be in order...

Posted by imjimmy 05/05/2009 at 05:06 AM

"""Despite being nervous, I was laughing and applauding that impossible shoe-string volley Novak came up with in the second set (I can't remember which game). Rafa had just rocketed a passing shot down near Novak's ankle and Novak just stuck his racket down there and accidentally put it exactly right. Gorgeous cc volley winner. Novak kind of looked dazed when he realized that he hit the impossible winner and he slowly turned around like a zombie, but then it seemed to dawn on him what had happened and he let this mischievous grin spread across his face as he walked to the baseline. I was pissed, but I was laughing too."""

Sic: Thanks! Best moment of the match. Novak's smile (after he realized his unbelievable volley) was PRICELESS!

The point: Novak was serving 2-3 in the 2nd set at 0-15. He won that point to make it 15-15.

Posted by sic (¡este chico es Pata Negra!) 05/05/2009 at 05:37 AM

Thanks for the tip on the game Imjimmy, I think I'll look for that point on youtube...!

Posted by Avec Double Cordage 05/05/2009 at 05:42 AM

probabaly one of the best articles that I've ever read, great stuff! And I remeber my uncle having a Volvo 264 (or similar) turbo in the eighties, he gave it to my mother once to try it out, I was just a little kid but I can still remember the kick in the back I got sitting on the passenger seat when she touched the gas pedal, ignoring what turbo means

Posted by jp2506 05/05/2009 at 06:05 AM

Posted by jabeau 05/05/2009 at 07:17 AM

Thank you Steve. Another piece of much awaited analysis about Rafael and his game. Always a pleasure to read.

Posted by steve 05/05/2009 at 07:29 AM

Excellent Steve, thx again.

Posted by skip1515 05/05/2009 at 08:17 AM

A great column (sic).

" Nadal, at the most basic level, forces Djokovic to hit his favorite shots, the down-the-line forehand and backhand, from a little wider, a little deeper, and a little out of his strike zone. "

And, if I may add something, he forces Djokovic to do it one or two more times per rally in order to win the point than Djokovic would against anyone else. That, too, creates pressure.

Posted by cavedweller 05/05/2009 at 08:21 AM

Great fodder for insatiable Nadal fans, of whom I am one.
One quibble: You give prominent attention to Rafa's fist pumps and self-exhortations as indispensable battle-aids. These displays are far less common and more subdued than they used to be - does that say something about Rafa's current state of mind? More self-confidence? If so, the absence of these gestures should be more terrifying to opponents than their presence.
Someone, Abbey I think, mentioned Uncle Toni's burst of joy at the end of the Rome final - I noticed that also and was mildly surprised - indeed it said volumes about how he and Rafa maintain their winning ways...

Posted by Emma (insertwittymantrahere) 05/05/2009 at 08:22 AM

I think I'm becoming a Steve Tignor fangirl.
That was yet another excellent article Steve, thanks, I really enjoy all your Rafa posts.

Posted by Aliah 05/05/2009 at 08:46 AM

hmm...I'm going to break rank here.

I came on in the last article and quite shamelessly gushed about both the increasing integrity with which Steve writes with (not having to think and say what everyone else does for a given reaction) but also how I've found it compelling how much I share the same insights and perspectives when it is quite a rare thing for me.

Today, I'm not in such agreement....which is great, right? :)

Not about the integrity part, I maintain that bit...though you can never totally take away cynicism from a cynical girl ;)...but I'm not sure I could agree about the subtleties of quality in that final.

I have never been a big fan of Rafa for what used to be pretty one-dimensional power-play, but over the past one year I have been really impressed by - nay, in admiration of - the way he has tailored his game to be more versatile and attack with depth rather than power.

Sunday's final was a disappointment; what many call 'moonballing', that is all I saw of Rafa, save the few times he was backed up against the wall and really had to bring out the fine china and outsmart Novak.

I was even less of a fan of Djokovic, but I think the scoreline does him little justice and that he did indeed outplay and outsmart Rafa way too often. Many of Rafa's points came from Djokovic being Djokovic...whatever way you want to read that!

The quality of the match was not that of Monte Carlo, though a hell of a lot closer ironically.

I am impartial and unaffected by both players; and while it is always nice to see players be polite/friendly yet competitive/fiesty, I think we see that in most players who share a history of matches, so a little too theatrical - for want of a better word - to highlight it as something special between the two.

I agree that the elements in Rafa's game as it is now overall stands in line with your analysis Steve, but after watching quite an average performance by Rafa (in my humble opinion), I can't say I could apply it as a post-match reference.

I've grown a lot of admiration for Rafa: as a player, as a sportsman, and especially as a person who sits lofty and untouchable at such a tender age; but as a spectator of the sport, and one that indulges perhaps a little too often in studying behaviour and approach, I have felt something different in him of late.

I can't pinpoint a particular time it started - although it would be too easy to say the loss to del potro - but there has been something unsettled about him. Over the past few weeks, that unsettled element has translated into his game slowly reverting back to old ways - but then he was winning back then too, so what harm, I hear you say? None, I suppose, when it comes down to it. He'll still be no 1 and untouchable by the end of the year.

He is too good and too mature to go backwards, and has come too far a long way to ever forget the good that has come into his game over the past 12 months.

But I just hope his understated superiority in each technical element does not get undermined by his old comfort-zone style of play around the baseline - when the ball must surely worry at each shot if its trajectory will hit a spacecraft one of these days. ;)

I await the backlash *whistles* lol

Posted by Aliah 05/05/2009 at 09:00 AM

oh...apologies for another post, but I think I should at least have said that I still enjoyed the piece of writing - as always; you would have been wasted as a tennis player, even if you had loved it, Steve!

My previous most was just that I couldn't agree with its sentiment and timing - even though I agree with arbitrary truths of each element as a whole...if that makes sense? I am acutely aware than I don't make sense

Posted by Tfactor 05/05/2009 at 09:02 AM


Great article!

“the point is that we don’t read a lot of specifics about what the No. 1 player in the world does tactically and technically to separate himself from the pack”

While I understand it cannot be easy to find new things to say about any player who is extremely dominant over a period of time or a playing surface, I do believe there’s always room to analyze his game and they way his opponents approach it.

“his fist-pumps and vamoses are a way of keeping his desire to win tangible”

His fist pumping seems to be always directed at himself and not his opponent or the crowd (in the way Tsonga or even Djokovic do some times) which helps him to focus in the task at hand.

“He wins by acting like he’s never been there before”

Very insightful and may very well be the ultimate secret (or not so secret now) to Rafa’s success :)

Posted by Sandra 05/05/2009 at 09:22 AM

Aliah, I can't recall seeing Nadal hit a moonball. Hitting the ball with lots of topspin and with decent net clearance is not the same as moonballing. You and I watched a very different match on Sunday.

Posted by zolarafa 05/05/2009 at 09:27 AM

You do the same. Your articles , no matter what the subject is and no matter how many times you have written about them ( especially Rafa), are never routine and boring. Thanks for another great one.

To Rafa's game attributes, can I add his "movement" as well? He is rarely out of position for any shot. And even if he is, he can produce the most spectecular shots on the run, or can run to get a drop shot from across the court. He perhaps uses more area of the court ( and around it) than any other player to his advantage.

Posted by RafaFan-San Juan 05/05/2009 at 09:40 AM

Excellent, excellent, excellent!!!!

Rafa is re-inventing the way tennis is played, and Nole and Murray have been smart enough to follow his lead. He is also an absolutely wonderful young man.


Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 05/05/2009 at 09:58 AM

very nice article steve.

I can't wait to see a major final between rafa and nole. maybe at RG?

Posted by lisak 05/05/2009 at 10:11 AM

I agree with the comment that it is refreshing that you wrote about what Rafa is doing that is so great instead of his game
in relation to Federer. Yes, Federer was great but, this is
Rafa's time to shine. Rafa still has that burning desire to
achieve more and improve, something I think Federer has lost,
at least for now, time will tell.
That fist pumping, passionate display of emotion is exactly what
drew me to watching him play 3 years ago when I first saw him
win the French Open and I have been hooked ever since. It is
a pleasure to watch and enjoy!!
thanks for pulling it altogether...

Posted by cysportsgirl 05/05/2009 at 10:25 AM

i am re-posting this morning as i have re-read the article and all the comments...

Steve--one of the best articles i have ever read about any sport/athlete. Kudos to such insight!

i do agree with an earlier post that rafa's positioning and footwork are also an integral part of his game. and while i do NOT agree fundamentally with aliah's post, i do think there was a bit of tinkering and unease with rafa's game UNTIL the Rome tournament. as a diehard fan, i was so happy to see him come closer to his form in Rome...he did look a bit off---despite his wins, which i loved nonetheless!--but it looks like he is back in his usual progression of form.

about madrid???--have heard some comments that he may be content to play a few rounds and bow out gracefully---is this possible for him and his competitive spirit?--i am utterly torn by the fact that the more he plays, the better he gets

BUT i know him & toni & the team are irritated by the change in the tournament schedule and not thrilled to be playing in high altitude madrid---what are others' thoughts?

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