How Nadal humbled Federer (cont.)
It has the feel of classical myth. Twenty-eight years ago the gods decided to create the perfect tennis player, tall and lean and as light on his feet as a blown feather. They gave him everything: great hands, a stiletto serve, ground strokes that the sport's hero, Sampras, called better than his own. The perfect tennis player could speak four languages. He was polite to officials, patient with the media and so gracious in victory that opponents almost didn't mind losing to him. After a while, this began to gall the gods, who are, after all, capricious beings. They don't like to be bored. And, as always, they had given themselves an out.
They had left one small flaw in the perfect tennis player's game. Few could expose it. Indeed, years would pass before anyone realized it existed. The pro tour is dominated by righthanders, whose crosscourt backhands are incapable of generating the speed, spin and high bounce necessary to make the weakness plain; only a lefty's forehand could probe it consistently enough. But it was there, a place high on the backhand side where the perfect tennis player's normally impeccable one-hander, which could absorb the heaviest strokes and counter them with pinpoint accuracy, faltered enough to make him human.
Now the gods just needed a tool. And in Rafael Nadal, they found it. As a 10-year-old in the town of Manacor, on the Spanish island of Majorca, the naturally righthanded Rafa had played two-handed off both wings. But his uncle Toni, a former table-tennis champ and club tennis pro who was also the boy's coach, suggested that he drop a hand while hitting off his left side and, while he was at it, why not just play lefthanded? Rafa liked being coached by his uncle. He did what he was told.
At first the boy hit his strokes fairly flat, and Toni soon realized he needed a bigger weapon. So, recalling his own spin-happy Ping-Pong days, Toni persuaded Rafa to develop what some players call a reverse forehand -- in which, instead of swinging the racket across his body and finishing above his right shoulder, he jerks the racket back after striking the ball and finishes above his left -- to impart extreme topspin. Thanks to his remarkable racket speed and to advances in string technology, Rafa was eventually able to hit shots that rotated at an unprecedented 3,200 revolutions per minute (compared with Federer's 2,500), fell inside the lines and, most important, bounced like a frightened jackrabbit, high and away from the perfect player's backhand. The stroke's impact? Eric Hechtman, a hitting partner for both players, says returning Nadal's forehand feels "like you're breaking off your arm."
In 2004 Federer had just risen to No. 1 when he faced the 17-year-old Nadal for the first time, in Miami. Nadal won 6-3, 6-3, and Federer walked off the court puzzled. "I couldn't quite play the way I wanted to," he said. "He doesn't hit the ball flat and hard; it's more with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce, bounce high, and that's a struggle I had today. I tried to get out of it but kind of couldn't."
Nadal, in other words, was able to do what no other man could. He made the tour's most elegant player -- the one with the cream-colored Wimbledon sport coat and the just-so hair -- feel awkward. Nadal forced Federer's backhand far out of its wheelhouse, or what Andy Roddick calls the pocket. "It's a huge advantage for Rafa to be able to pull him off [the court] to his weak side," Roddick says. "And we're talking about a foot differential between being in his pocket and being out of it. Play that enough times? It makes a difference."
Nadal won five of their next six meetings, four of them on clay, and his unyielding nature and breathtaking defensive play lifted him to No. 2 in the world. It wasn't enough. "When I was a kid, I always thought about Wimbledon," Nadal says. "I love that atmosphere. In Wimbledon the Spanish players never did very well. It was a challenge for me." Anyone questioning Nadal's resolve stopped in 2006, after he won his second French Open. The next day he took the Eurostar to London, raced to the Queens Club and practiced two hours on the grass, his grunts resounding into darkness. There was only one man in his way.
"Without question he put a bull's-eye on Federer," says former world No. 1 Jim Courier. "Nadal was Number 2 for how long -- 160 weeks, the most consecutive weeks at Number 2 for any player? And he wanted to be Number 1. So he found a way to get there."
Toni and Rafa both knew that Rafa's forehand, whose height was lessened by grass and hard courts, couldn't do the job alone. Every dimension of his game had to improve. Toni would list his nephew's deficiencies, stroke by stroke, each time they faced Federer. "He's so much better than you," Toni would say, "but if you believe and work, you can win."
Indeed, it has been easy to reduce Nadal's triumph to mere belief and work, as if he were some implacable primitive: will personified. The truth, however, is that Camp Rafa is a fairly sophisticated operation. A Majorcan trainer, Juan Forcades, oversees Nadal's conditioning. Physical therapist Rafael Maymo spends much of his day taking notes on when and what Nadal eats; when he goes to sleep and when he wakes; how much time he spends hitting forehands, backhands and volleys. Toni, meanwhile, has harped on his nephew's weaknesses so effectively that even in the earliest rounds of last year's French Open, Rafa was scared of losing. Toni reassured him -- "You're Number 1 on clay!" -- but it didn't matter. "He never relaxes," Toni says. "He's so afraid for every match."
From mid-2006 through '07 Federer took five of his seven matches with Nadal, including both Wimbledon finals, and he seemed to have mastered his young rival at last. But Nadal took a major step by pushing Federer to five sets in the '07 Wimbledon final. As the challenger he had the psychological advantage of chasing, and unlike Federer he was determined to keep adding weapons. To beat Federer on grass and hard courts, Toni and Rafa were methodically upgrading Rafa's game, making it less reliant on defense and more geared to dictating play and conserving energy.
"I had to improve," Rafa says. "Sure, having in front of me one guy like Federer, one complete player, it's always pushing me. But I always believed. I thought, I am young, I can improve a lot of things. Without that, I am Number 2, so if I improve I have a chance to be in the top position."
These days it's fashionable to say that Nadal has climbed inside Federer's head. But he needed a ladder to get there. The first rung: consistently staking out an offensive position, or, as Nadal puts it, "always trying to go more inside the court. That gives me more control of the point, no? Before I was maybe one meter behind the baseline, two meters behind." The second rung: a better serve. In his early years on tour Nadal won most of his points with preposterous saves and sterling shotmaking; his serve was strictly a point starter, a predictable slice on which bold returners such as James Blake feasted. Nadal ranked 51st on the ATP tour in serving in 2004, winning just 77% of his service games. After Roddick beat him in straight sets at that year's U.S. Open, the American star walked off the court thinking, He's not going to crack the top five if that serve doesn't improve.
It did. Nadal's serves, which were then clocked at an average speed of 99 mph, are now traveling an average of 16 mph faster -- and he regularly hits the upper 120s on the radar gun. But it wasn't just a matter of hitting the ball harder. In fact, Toni says, one reason Federer had the upper hand in 2007 was that he pushed Rafa to serve with too much velocity, and the speed of Federer's returns threw off Nadal's timing. "So we had to learn other things," Toni says. According to Roddick, Nadal now hits to both sides of the service box on his first and second deliveries. "He can kick it, he can slice it," Roddick says. "You don't really know what's coming." Nadal finished last year ranked No. 1 in the world -- and fourth in serving, winning 88% of his service games.