How to Attack Rafael Nadal on the Wimbledon Grass
(June 21, 2013) Rafael Nadal’s dominance of the French Open has been absolutely remarkable. No other player in the history of tennis has so utterly conquered such a prestigious event year after year. Winning his eighth title at Roland Garros just a few short weeks ago, Nadal is the only player in the history of men’s tennis to win eight titles at single grand slam. His supremacy, even without the title, has been superior to the control both Roger Federer and Pete Sampras had over Wimbledon during their primes.
And as the tennis world closes in on Wimbledon, Nadal is looking to extend his clay court triumphs to the revered lawns of the All England Club. Nadal is seeded fifth in the tournament which undoubtedly has been the impetus for much debate over the seeding process. In addition, this specific seeding arrangement has put the Spaniard on a quarterfinal collision course with Federer, and possibly Andy Murray in the semifinals.
With this all said, how can the rest of the tennis world stifle the Spanish locomotive as he powers his way into Wimbledon? Let’s take a look at some strategies and tactics that can be used to attack Nadal as he pursues a third Wimbledon crown.
Diminish the margins quickly with an offensively-geared mindset - As Daniel Brands demonstrated in the first round of the French Open, one of the simplest strategies to integrate against Nadal is to endlessly take the initiative. Brands entered the match with a definitive intention which was to bludgeon each ball with as much pace as possible hoping to deny Nadal any opportunity of meeting his racket to the ball. This game plan is definitely simple enough in theory but it’s actually much harder to actualize on clay against Nadal. On grass, Nadal is less capable of engaging his opponents into marathon rallies during which he slowly eats away his opposition’s court position, fitness, and hope. Grass reduces the height at which the ball is being played and increases the speed by which the ball moves through the court. This combination facilitates more aggressive play and better rewards players who take more risks, an integral aspect of taking down Nadal.
Slice with caution - One feature of grass courts is that the ball tends to bounce low and skid thus making underspin shots infinitely more effective. Nadal’s forehand grips approaches a full-western which makes low balls harder to play. Those with more extreme forehand grips are more naturally suited to play higher reaching balls as the natural contact point is around chest level. Players with full western grips have a harder time getting under and swinging up the back of the ball, an abundantly necessary aspect of accelerating and obtaining power with such an extreme grip. This strategy is definitely a potent one to use against Nadal but is one that needs to be used with caution. If not executed with the appropriate pace and depth, the underspin backhand is a shot that Nadal is capable of running around and crushing. A weak slice backhand which can be equated to a flailing chip return by Federer is exactly the type of shot Nadal feasts on.
Serve variation - One of the main strategies used by the last three players (Federer, Djokovic, Rosol) to defeat Nadal at Wimbledon was to mix up their serve placement. Forcing Nadal to constantly adapt and adjust on the return is critical. Firstly, it keeps him off balance and consistently guessing. Secondly, Nadal’s forehand and backhand grips are far apart, so if Nadal is guessing backhand and the serve is targeted to his forehand, he’s not going to be able to switch his grip in time. As a result, he is likely going to be forced to chip the return back into play which more often than not will put him on the defensive.
Serve and Volley - There are many commentators and writers alike who have touted this play as old-fashioned and obsolete but I firmly believe that it can work. If Nadal retreats behind the baseline, players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer who possess versatile all-court games can use Nadal’s defensive return position as a catalyst to their offensive aggression. Again, caution must be used with the serve and volley tactic because Nadal is very apt at placing the ball at the feet of his opponents. In addition, serving and volleying on second serves is ill-advised because Nadal will move closer to the baseline to return and he will be able to take larger cuts on typically weaker serves.