Francis Roig: 'Rafa Has Found His Footing On Faster Surfaces'
An imposing number of wins on clay (21) has overshadowed another of Nadal's impressive year-to-date stats: Entering the US Open, the Spaniard holds the best victory ratio on hard courts this season with 17 match wins against two losses for a success rate of 88 per cent. A recent triumph at the Coupe Rogers in Montreal extended his record of ATP Masters 1000 titles to 35 and reaffirmed his position as a serious contender ahead of the hard-court major.
On Sunday, the 18-time Grand Slam champion took to the outer courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows for a practice session with World No. 9 Karen Khachanov. Coaches Carlos Moya and Francis Roig were on hand to oversee Nadal's practice work. After the session, coach Roig spoke with ATPTour.com to discuss the World No. 2's preparations ahead of the US Open and why he's more dangerous than ever on hard courts.
From what I've observed from the sidelines, Nadal is finding his rhythm and fine-tuning his game just in time for Tuesday's opening round match at the US Open.
Except for one morning when we trained in the indoor arena (with Alexander Zverev), then practised with Diego Schwartzman later in the day, every other session has gone well. Rafa is bringing the same dynamics he utilised in Montreal to lift the trophy. He played extremely well there; he was aggressive and that has proven to be the key to success on faster surfaces. I believe he has taken a step forward and found his footing, specifically on hard courts.
He's looked comfortable on this surface for a while now.
Rafa is feeling more complete now on the faster hard courts. He has much more confidence in his serve and has managed to boost the speed of both his first and second serves. This affords him many "easy" points. He's also improved his all-court game and feels more sure of himself when approaching the net and volleying. Another aspect where he's improved is on the backhand side; these days, he's more assertive with that shot and isn't afraid to step into the court with an approach shot on that side. Whereas he once backed off attacking shorter balls, he's now more poised and sees those shots as opportunities to end the point. All these elements combined make for a more complete, assured Rafa; no longer does every point have to be an epic battle of attrition.
Is it difficult to introduce changes when Nadal has been so successful for so long competing with his distinctive style of play?
Well, we still have our differences about that ... [laughs]. Both Charly [Moya] and I would rather have him build on the foundation that's led to where he is today, but it's hard to persuade Rafa sometimes. We'd rather he be more assertive than continue to sit back and wait.
And how have you convinced him to be more aggressive?
It is one thing to have an arsenal of weapons and a whole other thing to be swayed into utilizing it. I think Rafa has been coming around to that little by little. In his mind, he's managed to win Grand Slams without playing this "refined" way; he's gained praise and found success by engaging in drawn-out affairs and wearing down opponents. To give you an example: Back in 2013, his game was stellar, and he performed spectacularly throughout the season; in my opinion, though, the present version of Rafa looks more qualified to build a point and to work over an opponent. These days, he's dictating play more; he shouldn't be playing the "sit back and wait" game. I think he is realizing the value of building up a point with a more pointed attack and he's evolving into a more well-rounded player in the process.
You have put a lot of emphasis on the word "build."
By that, I mean don't wait to see what happens. In my mind, as soon as the ball bounces, Rafa should be on top of it, ready for contact, prepared for impact. Obviously, if you're playing an inspired [Roger] Federer and catch him on one of his days, that might not be the best approach every single point because of the way Federer strikes the ball and how it comes toward an opponent. Anything short, however, must be struck in a way to make Federer pay. Opportunities like those must not be wasted; chances to go on the offense must be handled with aggression. It's important for Rafa to place himself as close to the location of the bounce as possible to guarantee he's the one building the point in his favor. When one is sitting back in a comfort zone, chances are the opponent is settling down and into a groove as well.
This season, Nadal holds the best win per cent on hard court at 88 per cent (15-2).
I've said this a lot lately: In the past, there was the sense that certain opponents and styles could defeat us on this surface in three-set tournaments. Now, I think there must be a chain of events and circumstances for us to lose. Historically it has always been better to play five sets, because if Rafa got off to a rough start, he would have that much more time to recover and find his form. Rafa no longer needs that cushion, knowing he has time to get back into a match. He's more comfortable and in control on the faster surfaces these days, even in three-set matches.
How has that more secure frame of mind been reflected?
Not only has he been winning, but it's the way he's been winning. The results are more convincing or at least the feeling is that he's winning more matches by playing well, instead of outlasting opponents or hoping for changes of fortune. This boosts his confidence. He arrives [in New York] with mental fortitude and more convinced that he can thrive. On top of that, he's convinced he can secure the No. 1 spot in the [ATP] Race [to London]. That might be a bonus, but it does help drive his motivation.
John Millman awaits Nadal in Tuesday's first round match. Does Millman's upset of Roger Federer last year [3-6, 7-5, 7-6(7), 7-6(3)] on this same stage make Rafa a little more alert?
We are always alert. Rafa is the first to sense that; you don't need to tell him. Personally, I think Millman will take a measured approach and understand that while his upset over Federer last year was a huge statement, he'll go into the match against Rafa just as eager and with the goal of making a strong run in the tournament this year. It is also true that the weather and conditions last year were different; it was tremendously hot and this year it seems that it will not be as extreme.
Millman is also not an unknown commodity; Nadal and Millman have met once before.
Exactly. We played Millman at Wimbledon two years ago (d. Millman 6-1, 6-3, 6-2). Today, Millman is a more experienced, more dangerous player. But, in the end, every match is difficult, no matter the round or opponent, and Rafa knows as well as anyone he'll have to proceed with caution if he's to advance deeper into the tournament.