Rafael Nadal has been on a tear of late. He won the U.S open for the third time and backed it up with a solid performance in Beijing, beating Grigor Dimitrov and Nick Kyrgios in back to back matches, to clinch the title there. So brilliant was his run, that it surprised his longtime rival, Roger Federer. Truth is, it surprised a lot of perennial tennis followers. This deviates from the script. We all know Rafael Nadal does not dominate this part of the season. From the U.S Open through to the world tour finals, the major tournaments are on hard courts – the most unforgiving surface for Nadal’s style of play – and he usually comes into the final stretch of the season, a little worse for wear. That wasn’t the case yesterday when he destroyed Jared Donaldson like it was January. So why has this year been different?
One of the key changes to Nadal’s overall approach has been his scheduling. He’s been a bit smarter about it, giving himself good gaps between tournaments without staying away too long to fall out of rhythm. It is common knowledge that Nadal is a rhythm player. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call him a creature of rhythm. What this has done, is allow Nadal compete in many more tournaments feeling as fresh as he possibly can. He’s been talking a lot this year about having a “good feeling” on the court and in practice. It shows. The occasional early loss – Wimbledon, Montreal, and Cincinnati for instance – hasn’t hurt him either. They may have inadvertently contributed to the Nadal we are seeing now, as they gave him even more time to rest and come back stronger.
Another far subtler change is the presence of Carlos Moya in Nadal’s team. In his heyday, Moya was known to be an unusual Spanish tennis player for his ability to transition from clay to other surfaces, a bit more easily than his fellow countrymen. A lot of this was due to Moya’s game style which was more aggressive than the traditional dirt grinder’s game. He was especially fond of running around his backhand and slapping inside-out forehands from well inside the baseline. It is very possible that he has taken Nadal’s offensive mindset to the next level. The evidence of this offensive mindset seeps from Nadal’s game with the viscous motion of honey. Nadal has progressively gotten more efficient with his service games, more assertive with his court positioning by stepping in and taking his shots with the ball on the rise, and more dominant at the net – is there a better drop volleyer in the game today? The result? Big players like Kyrgios and Donaldson – the last two men he’s destroyed – are finding it difficult to hit through him. Believe it or not but at age 31, Nadal is becoming a more complete player than he’s ever been.
Finally, his current thirteen match winning streak can be summed up in one word. Confidence. Winning breeds confidence, which in turn, breeds more winning. This is the rhythm every great player loves to get himself into. Rhythms like this have shaped the sport’s history. All of a sudden, with the World Tour Finals looming, you have to wonder if Nadal isn’t the favorite to win it and thus fill in a gaping hole in his greatness resume. As long as he stays within this rhythm, anything is possible.