2010 or 2019: Which Rafa Serve Is More Potent?
Rafael Nadal enters Sunday's Australian Open final with a surprising statistic: The World No. 2 has won five consecutive matches in Melbourne without dropping serve, and he has been broken just twice in the entire tournament.
Nadal was broken twice in the first round against James Duckworth, whom he beat 6-4, 6-3, 7-5. The last time the 32-year-old Spaniard's serve was so dominant at a major was at the 2010 US Open, when he completed the career Grand Slam by defeating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.
How does Nadal’s current serve — one he and his team tinkered with during the pre-season — stack up against the version he utilised to lift the crown at the 2010 US Open?
“Maybe it had a little more pace back then, but my new serve is a safer approach,” Nadal told ATPTour.com. “Back then [in 2010], I served well throughout the US Open, in an ‘out of this world’ way. Now, I want to be able to fall back on my serve. I want to be able to trust it, not just for one tournament, but going forward. I want consistency and I'm making strides toward that with my serve.
“Everything has gone very well so far this tournament, but I know I'll hit some rough spots in the future because when you make changes, you have to deal with the repercussions that come with change.”
Coach Francisco Roig, who played a part in tweaking the mechanics of the 17-time Grand Slam champion's service motion, is aware of the ups and downs that come with change. He also remembers how Nadal found his serving groove at Flushing Meadows almost nine years ago, only to suddenly lose it.
“In 2010 he was serving very well. In fact, we recently analysed the technical aspects of that particular service motion," Roig recalled. "Looking back though, I consider his serve throughout that event as a summer flower: his serve came and went. Rafa had it, then out of nowhere, he lost it. These days, we're getting to the bottom of things. Our job is to get to the root of a problem to solve it, not just work with what's right and change what's wrong but to find solutions and answer why something is working or isn't working. I'm sure, as the year progresses, we'll refine his serve and come to more conclusions.”
The pre-season allowed time for Nadal and his team to test refinements — time he wasn't afforded in 2010, when the concept of tweaking his motion and grip was conceived during a training session with Juan Monaco. During a practice with the retired Argentine, Nadal launched serves up to 220 kilometers per hour (136.7 mph) — an unprecedented speed for the Spaniard until that point. Soon after the 2010 US Open victory, Nadal's newly acquired weapon was gone. In the following weeks during tournaments in Asia, the Spaniard's serve seemingly came undone.
This time around, Team Nadal hopes the revamped serve will leave its mark and have a lasting impact beyond the Australian Open.
“The pre-season was vital in terms of providing us with time to work [on the serve],” former World No. 1 Carlos Moya, another one of Nadal's coaches, said. “We were ready to test the serve in Paris-Bercy [Rolex Paris Masters] but Rafa wasn't fit. The abdominal injury and then the operation on his foot prevented that but they also gave us more time to adjust details that needed tuning. This is what I consider a long-term procedure; it's going to benefit us in the long run.”
As for Nadal, he's adjusting well to the reworked technique of his serve and the additions it brings to his game.
“I'm getting [my serve] to where I want it to be, and I'm also following it up with shots to reinforce the damage it delivers,” Nadal said. “I feel comfortable with the current motion, it's flowing well. I feel I have the ability to get more out of my game with this delivery.”
Roig, a technician by nature, is pleased with the improved performance he sees in his charge's advancement and is confident ahead of Nadal's matchup against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Sunday's final.
“Above everything else, his new motion is more fluid and saves energy while also applying pressure on his opponent to respond,” Roig said. "In the end, Rafa plays more calmly because he knows that the serve isn’t as costly. It means a lot when Rafa can rely on his serve to earn him points, rather than having to work that much harder to hold it. This new motion is giving him a lot in Australia. It's one of the reasons why he's been able to manouever his way to final without much resistance.”