Sports Nut

The Ugly Backswing

Rafael Nadal, the awkward tennis prodigy.

Different strokes

On Monday, Britain’s Daily Telegraph wrote that Björn Borg had returned to Wimbledon. Rafael Nadal’s debut on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, the paper suggested, would hearken back to the days when teenage girls trespassed onto the court to get close to the sultry Swede. Nadal’s opening match turned out to be a bit more low-key than all that. No girls threw themselves onto the grass. There weren’t even any audible squeals—who knows, there might not have been any teenage girls at all. Even without the shrieking to buck him up, the 19-year-old French Open champ quickly attacked the ancient (almost 31) Vince Spadea. By the third set, Spadea was limping. Playing an injured foe can be a tricky mental proposition, but Nadal just kept coming. When his slumped opponent double-faulted to go down 0-4 in the third set, Nadal let loose with a wild fist pump. He took the match a few minutes later.

Since he won at Roland Garros a few weeks ago, everyone has said that Nadal is “good for the game.” Everyone is right. Nadal is a charismatic, original performer. He competes with enough emotional aggression to convert a hardened NFL fan but isn’t disrespectful to his opponents. Pretty much everything about him—from his Capris (now whitened to obey Wimbledon’s sartorial rules) to his clenched fist—is already a trademark. But Spain’s theatrical muscle-boy is unique for another reason. No tennis champion in recent memory has won so much while doing so many things wrong.

Start with his serve, a stroke that’s neither pretty nor, up to now, effective. Since the advent of the power game in the 1980s, the sport’s great servers—Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, et al.—have used a relaxed motion, a high toss, and tremendous leg strength and arm speed to explode their bodies up to the ball. Nadal tosses the ball fairly low and rushes up to get it; in the process, he loses all the power he might get from his sturdy, soccer-built legs.

Nadal’s ground strokes are more powerful than his serve, but they aren’t the effortless shots that most pros own. He muscles his two-handed backhand rather than gliding through it, and it often lands short, putting him in a defensive position. Nadal also hits it with an open stance—a technique considered utterly implausible until the rise of the Williams sisters—and off his back foot, which again robs him of power. And while his heavy-topspin, lefty forehand is a serious weapon, you won’t find it any tennis handbook. Compare Nadal’s forehand with Roger Federer’s. Both players generate tremendous racket speed, but Nadal falls away from the ball, forcing him to rely on his arm strength and a violent uppercut swing. Federer is nearly always well-balanced and in perfect position, leaning into the shot so he can hit the ball hard without ripping his arm off.

The Spanish prodigy never went to a tennis academy. He still lives on the island of Mallorca and has the same coach he did when he was a kid: his Uncle Toni. So, how can Nadal be such an unbelievable player at such a young age if he doesn’t have robotic strokes?

First, he’s crafty. Beneath the swashbuckling image is a methodical player who makes the safe, smart move nine times out of 10. When an opponent comes to the net, he likes to hit a dipping topspin shot, which forces the other guy to volley, rather than trying for an outrageous angle. He protects his relatively weak serve by making sure he gets the first one in.

Modern tennis is also more forgiving of unorthodox technique than the game was 30 years ago. Space-age racket materials and bigger head sizes—not to mention the increased size and athleticism of the players themselves—allow tennis’s elites to hit the ball with spin and power no matter how they swing or how their bodies are positioned. After Venus and Serena Williams, Nadal is the next evolutionary step away from textbook tennis. Like the Williams sisters, he was coached by a family member. For all three players, the confidence and competitiveness that their family instilled was more important than the strokes they taught.

The Williams sisters began to fade when their competitiveness waned and their confidence sank. For now, that’s not a problem for Nadal. When Nadal took on the smoother, more experienced Federer at the French, it was the top-ranked Swiss player who looked uncomfortable and unorthodox. When Nadal served for the match—the ultimate mind game—he hit his backhand with more power and depth than he had all day.

Nadal comes to Wimbledon in an enviable position. Any success on grass, a slick surface that makes it tougher for him to hit his elaborate strokes, will be an unexpected bonus. But unlike many of his male, tennis-playing countrymen, he’s not skipping the tournament to spend more time on clay. That’s yet another reason to love the kid, and the biggest reason to think that someday he’ll overcome his deficiencies and win Wimbledon. Watching his first-round match, it was clear that he’s already getting better. His service motion appeared the same, but I’d never seen Nadal hit the ball so hard. Amazing what a positive attitude can do.