Rapid Rafa: Serve, Play And Win Faster
Coach Francis Roig breaks down the numbers on Nadal’s road to US Open quarter-finals
"Sorry, Diego, we’re going to need the court for another 15 or 20 minutes to play a set."
Francis Roig and Carlos Moya, coaches of Rafael Nadal, maintain straight faces as they joke with Diego Schwartzman on Practice Court 1 of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. Schwartzman and his coach, Juan Ignacio Chela, are waiting for Nadal to wrap up a training session at 1:02 p.m. -- two minutes past the time allotted on the court for Nadal and his team. Schwartzman smiles mischievously as the World No. 2 hits a few more volleys before shaking hands with his quarter-final opponent and finally stepping off the court. Nadal’s coaches exchange hearty hugs with the Argentine before following their charge off the court.
It’s a humorous, light-hearted moment that exemplifies the good nature between the sides off the court ahead of Wednesday’s clash at the US Open. On the court, a ruthless Nadal is 7-0 in his FedEx ATP Head2Head series against Schwartzman, including two four-set wins at Grand Slams (Australian Open, Roland Garros) in 2018.
The coaches’ joke is also a reference to their pupil’s efficiency at the tournament so far. Nadal’s road to the quarter-finals has been almost impeccable, and the stats reinforce his position as a strong candidate to lift his fourth title in Flushing Meadows. Still, his coaches feel there’s room for improvement, and their pursuit of perfection is relentless.
“We have to constantly improve; it isn’t just about his overall game, but his ‘feel’ for the game,” Roig told ATPTour.com following Nadal’s practice. “That’s not something that happens overnight, or you just happen upon. It’s the next step of improving one’s game. His ability to listen and absorb is extraordinary. It’s a virtue; it allows us as coaches to have a dialogue with him, point out specifics and know he’s on the same wavelength.”
The numbers confirm what Nadal’s team has been stressing about his approach throughout the US Open: He’s serving faster, better and with more confidence. The 18-time Grand Slam champion is also earning points at a quicker rate and winning more efficiently. The results reflect the specific emphasis the team has recently put on aggression. Through four rounds, Nadal holds the highest percentage of first-serve points earned.
First Serve Points Won (Through US Open Fourth Round
"His service improvement is obvious," Roig said, who also pointed out Nadal finished the match with 11 aces -- one more than Cilic. "Rafa has been increasing his serve velocity and even though he committed six double faults against [Marin] Cilic, when you take into account second serves and the fact they came over four sets, we still felt he was serving at a high level. It goes beyond even the numbers; we point even more value at how he served at critical moments. He came up big when it really mattered, and that’s what really counts; the value of that can’t be measured.”
In Roig’s eyes, more critical than service speed or percentage of points earned with first serves is the improvement of Nadal’s second serve. At this year’s US Open, Nadal has won 57 per cent of second serve points, compared to 49 per cent by five-time US Open champion Roger Federer prior to his quarter-final loss to Grigor Dimitrov.
“Rafa’s second serve is very strong,” Roig said. “He’s launching it with speed and variety, and he launches that serve in two distinct ways: One is more dangerous both in risk and potential reward, while the other is safer and clears more space above the net.”
“Brutally efficient” is the best way to describe Nadal’s 2019 US Open campaign so far: The Spaniard has spent 6 hours, 56 minutes on court -- the shortest amount of time of any quarter-finalist. It’s an impressive stat, even when considering he played one less match to reach the last eight than six of the other quarter-finalists after Thanasi Kokkinakis withdrew from their second-round match due to injury (Dimitrov advanced to the third round after Borna Coric was also forced to withdraw).
Player Time Spent On Court To Reach US Open QFs
Rafael Nadal* - 6 hours, 56 minutes
Grigor Dimitrov* - 7 hours, 4 minutes
Roger Federer - 7 hours, 31 minutes
Gael Monfils - 8 hours, 36 minutes
Diego Schwartzman - 8 hours, 40 minutes
Daniil Medvedev - 9 hours, 59 minutes
Stan Wawrinka - 10 hours, 17 minutes
Matteo Berrettini - 11 hours, 26 minutes
* Played one less match en route to quarter-finals due to walkover
Nadal grasps the concept of development as well as anyone and has constantly evolved throughout his career. And while he’s proven his ability to adapt to faster surfaces, Roig’s strategy for continued success at the US Open is to keep things moving on the court. “We have to play direct and keep the rallies short,” Roig said. “Sometimes it isn’t a matter of Rafa stepping into the court or standing farther behind the baseline; it’s more about striking the ball confidently and at angles. So far, his backhand has been dependable and he’s using his forehand to open the court and finish points.”
Points Earned From The Baseline (Through US Open Fourth Round)
Another area where Nadal has been dominant is in first serve return points won. “It’s a category he normally dominates,” Roig said. “Like everything else, though, it’s something we want to improve, and we’ve been working on ways to increase his chances of earning points on opponents’ service games. When it comes to receiving, there’s always room to do better and it’s not an exact science. As a team, this is one aspect of Rafa’s game we are constantly trying to boost.”
First Serve Return Points Won (Through US Open Fourth Round)
The numbers have been impressive, but the quest for perfection is endless. With Schwartzman standing in the way between Nadal and his third consecutive US Open semi-finals, there’s still work to be done in Flushing Meadows.
“Rafa expects a stiff challenge against ‘Peque’ [Shorty] as he’s having a great tournament so far,” Roig said. “Diego knows us very well and that can complicate things. I expect a great match.”