It was a familiar sight in the end: Rafael Nadal flat on his back after a titanic struggle of nearly five hours, his will to fight having proved too much for a game opponent. The US Open men’s final against Daniil Medvedev was filled with Nadal’s trademark qualities of courage, discipline and tenacity, and as he soaked up the moment we went through our usual routine of wondering whether he was human.
But while the emotions were familiar – almost too familiar, as it was just a year ago that he had produced a similarly belief-defying epic against Dominic Thiem – in the larger scheme of things they were unexpected. Who would’ve thought a decade ago that the Spaniard would still be winning hardcourt Grand Slams at the age of 33, wonky knees and all?
At the end of 2016, Nadal seemed to be in the last phase of his career, destined for just the occasional flourish on clay. But he has won five of the 12 Slams played since then – which is higher than the tally of current World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Most strikingly, two of those five Slam titles have come on the hardcourts of New York.
We are supposed to be in the ‘Djokovic Era’, and yet in the last three years Nadal has won the same number of Slams on Djokovic’s favorite surface as Djokovic himself. How could this have happened?
There is one obvious factor behind that: Nadal’s newfound eagerness to play close to the baseline and to attack more. That approach helps him take time away from his opponents and prevent them from taking big cuts at the ball, while simultaneously reducing the strain on his body and in particular his knees.
Nadal’s increased emphasis on offense was first visible during the 2017 Australian Open, and it has been getting more pronounced with each passing year. But at this year’s US Open there was another factor of his play that jumped out: the strength and variety on his backhand.
Nadal has always had a very good crosscourt backhand, but it is only in the last couple of years that he has started using it as an offensive weapon rather than a reactive neutraliser. He now leans into his backhand from up in the court and looks to time it into the corners instead of reflexively muscling it back. That ties in perfectly with his advanced court positioning, allowing him to hold his ground even when he is stretched wide.
The down-the-line backhand has also improved substantially, even if it makes only intermittent appearances. Against Medvedev, it made sense for him to keep going crosscourt in order to exploit the Russian’s forehand vulnerability, but against Matteo Berrettini, in the semi-finals, Nadal hit more down-the-line backhands than I can ever remember him hitting. The Spaniard’s version of the shot will never be in the same class as Djokovic’s, but the depth and flat pace he gets on it are enough to keep his opponents from teeing off.
The final was always going to be a bigger test than any of the previous matches, and in the early going Nadal used both the crosscourt (as the stock version) and the down-the-line (as the change-up) backhand to push Medvedev around on the baseline. He calmly ran up a lead of two sets and a break, and despite all that the Russian had done in the lead-up to the match, it looked like he was going to go down in a dispiriting straight-setter.
Then something happened that doesn’t often happen with Nadal: his play suffered a sudden downturn. At about the same time Medvedev raised his level, and what looked like a routine three-setter turned into a proper dogfight.
In those dramatic third and fourth sets, Medvedev was the one dictating the play and Nadal was reduced to a defensive counterpuncher. This wasn’t the post-2017 version of the player that had been so successful outside clay; instead, it was a player pushed way back behind the baseline by a player who had seemingly forgotten how to lose.
The backhand briefly hit a snag too. His crosscourt bullets weren’t bullets anymore because he was hitting them from much further back than usual. And his down-the-line change-ups weren’t flat enough because he looked scared of truly taking them on.
At the start of the fifth set, Nadal teetered on the edge; he faced three break points at 0-1, and had to come up with his biggest serves and boldest forehands to escape. But once he got past that moment of danger, Nadal rediscovered another, seemingly forgotten dimension of his backhand: the slice.
I’m not just talking about the defensive slice, which Nadal used liberally throughout the match when stretched. But at 2-2 in the fifth set he deliberately started carving under backhands from neutral positions and was rewarded with a string of errors from Medvedev. The break was soon his, and although he would go on to experience a wave of jitters that almost wiped out a double break lead, he managed to hold on long enough and seal the win.
Nadal’s win over Medvedev was built on many things in addition to his backhand and his slice. He served well when he had to, hit his spots with the forehand, and also rushed the net at several crucial moments. But Nadal regularly did all of those things even before 2017, and still remained vulnerable to big hitters on quick surfaces.
With his improved backhand, Nadal now has the final piece of the puzzle in place. His base level of play has gone up several notches in the last couple of years, even as his foot speed has reduced. Nadal just doesn’t get bullied by big hitters the way he used to, because his backhand allows him to stay toe-to-toe with them. He may not defend as well as he used to but that doesn’t hurt him because he doesn’t need to defend too often.
If Nadal had choked away his 5-2 lead in the fifth set, we may have been singing a different tune right now. But let’s not forget that against a player of Medvedev’s caliber, on the Russian’s favorite surface, even building a two-set lead was no mean feat. That lead was as much a result of Nadal’s improved backhand as anything else in his game, and it ultimately proved crucial to the Spaniard winning the match.
Even putting aside the recency bias, the signs have been evident for a while now. In addition to his two US Open titles in the last three years Nadal has also reached the Australian Open final twice, and this year at the Rogers Cup he successfully defended a title outside clay for the first time in his career. Through all of these runs, the backhand has been the single biggest difference in comparison to the early part of his career.
The work that Nadal has put in since adding Carlos Moya to his coaching team in 2016 is clearly paying off. Armed with an improved backhand to go with the already formidable game he possessed, the Spaniard is breaking new ground even at the age of 33.
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Updated Date: Sep 09, 2019 13:13:18 IST