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Just a nerd with a knack for stats

5 Men Who Should Coach Rafael Nadal

Over the last few days, in the wake of Nadal getting swept during the European clay court season, I’ve been discussing Nadal’s future in length. There’s one point I keep coming back to. Rafael Nadal has to change his coach. I’ve explained time and time again already that Toni Nadal has outlasted his usefulness and is in fact detrimental to Rafa’s career at this point. If you want more details on why Rafa needs to part ways with Toni, check out my last two articles about Rafa’s future.

To be clear, there is no indication that Rafael Nadal is even considering changing coaches. In fact, he’s adamantly denied the possibility of it happening. This is a rumour that I am creating, or at least spreading and it’s a rumour without basis. This is nothing but speculation, although my recommendations are serious.

Now, in a lightly more realistic way, who could Rafa replace Toni with? He needs someone with experience. Someone who understands the game. Someone who has worked with veterans before. Someone who understands Rafa’s current mental struggles. And perhaps most importantly, someone who can foster the proper environment to facilitate Rafa’s comeback. These suggestion are mostly serious, so you won’t find me recommending Boris Becker here. Here are some suggestions as to who should replace Toni Nadal as Rafael Nadal’s coach.

Brad Gilbert

Brad Gilbert is probably the greatest coach in tennis history, bar maybe Toni Nadal. The difference between Toni and Brad, which gives Gilbert the edge, is that Brad Gilbert has taken multiple players, often already established pros, and turned them into stars. Gilbert spent time with Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, both of whom did well under his tutelage. Roddick won the 2003 US Open and reached the number one ranking in 2003 under Gilbert, finishing the year in the top spot. He also reached the 2004 Wimbledon final under Gilbert. Andy Murray reached his then-career high ranking of number eight with Gilbert as his coach. It was Gilbert who kick started Kei Nishikori’s career and set him on the course that has led him to the top five and grand slam contender status. And most importantly, it was Brad Gilbert who, according to his charge himself, almost single-handedly turned Andre Agassi from a spoiled brat into the legend that we remember him as. Under Gilbert, Agassi won six grand slam singles titles and Agassi has time and time again claimed that Gilbert was the reason for his success. Gilbert took over coaching Agassi in 1994. At the time, Agassi had been at the top of the game for several years, had reached four slam finals and had won Wimbledon in 1992. But Agassi was still missing something that was preventing him from being truly great. Gilbert brought that something to Agassi’s game and Andre is now remembered as one of the greatest of all time. According to Agassi, Gilbert was one part coach, one part psychologist. Agassi said that what Gilbert really taught him that allowed him to win was how to keep his head in the game. This is perfect for Rafael Nadal. What’s killing Rafa currently is his mental state. He’s lost his confidence. He needs a coach who understands that and knows how to encourage his players. That’s exactly what Brad Gilbert brings to the table. What’s more is that Gilbert, according to Agassi, singlehandedly broke the worst slump possibly ever seen in tennis history. In 1997, Agassi went completely off the rails and was ready to retire. It was Gilbert who pushed him, got him fit again, and got him back to the top. Two years after that meltdown, Agassi reached four straight slam finals, winning three, and finished the year at number one. He remained near the top of the game until his retirement in 2006 (though Gilbert parted ways with Agassi in 2002). Brad Gilbert is the slump buster and Rafael Nadal is in a slump. Less than a coach, Rafa needs a psychologist at the moment and Gilbert is just that. Not to mention, Gilbert is also one of the best strategists in tennis history. If you haven’t read his book Winning Ugly, read it. It’s brilliant. I’ve said that Nadal needs to retool his game to extend his career and Gilbert can help do that better than anyone. Certainly better than Toni Nadal. Gilbert is not currently coaching anyone and works as a commentator for ESPN. Brad Gilbert is exactly what Rafael Nadal needs at the moment. He would be a perfect fit.

Darren Cahill

Another Agassi connection, Cahill took over from Gilbert in 2001 and coached Agassi until Andre’s retirement in 2006. Cahill is also a proven coach, having kick-started Lleyton Hewitt’s career and led him to a US Open title and number one ranking. He’s proven that he can build a champion. He also proved with Agassi that he can coach a veteran. Agassi had relied on Gilbert and Gilbert had played such an important role in Agassi’s career, it seemed impossible that anyone could fill that hole. Kind of like how it seems impossible that anyone could fill the hole that would be left by Toni Nadal. Cahill did a fantastic job with Agassi. They won the 2003 Australian Open together and reached a further two US Open finals. When Cahill joined Agassi, Andre was already 30 and almost all of his contemporaries either had retired or were on the brink (Courier, Sampras, Becker to name a few). Not only would Agassi outlast them all, he would put them all to shame. Under Cahill, Agassi would regain the number one ranking, becoming the oldest player in men’s tennis to hold to the top spot. What Cahill brings to Rafael Nadal is his ability to work with veterans. He’s proven already that he can take an established champion and help them continue their careers. If Agassi’s body hadn’t given out in 2006, who knows how long he would have played? Cahill understands veterans and their minds. He can help Rafa. Andre Agassi also claimed that Cahill was a very calming presence. After twenty-four years of tension with Toni Nadal, Rafa could use something completely different. That’s what Cahill brings. Also, Cahill showed with Agassi that’s he’s willing to tinker with his players game to help them improve. In 2002, Agassi was unhappy with his racquet, so Cahill took it upon himself to find Andre a new one with new strings. Andre had been doing great with the old racquet, so it only made sense to find something similar. Instead, Cahill drastically changed Agassi’s weapon. The result was immediate success on clay, winning the 2002 Italian Open, and continued success on hard courts for four more years. I’ve said that Rafa needs to make adjustments to his game, but Toni Nadal is unwilling to do so. Cahill wouldn’t be. He would steer Nadal in the right direction. Cahill currently works as a commentator for ESPN during the grand slam events. Darren Cahill has been in almost this exact same position before he has experience taking over from a long time coach of a great player and extending their career. There’s no reason why couldn’t do, or at least try, again.

Andre Agassi

Of all the potential coaches I’m listing here, this one is by far and away the least likely. It would be a dream come true for me, as Nadal is my favourite player and Agassi is my favourite former-player. But Agassi’s hate for pro-tennis, at least while he was playing, is well known. He continues to play exhibition matches to this day, but that’s definitely for fun. He never seems to take them seriously. He’s just out there to goof around. So it seems unlikely that Andre would be willing to return to the world of serious tennis. Not to mention he has a life, kids, and schools to run at home in Las Vegas, so rejoining the tour probably doesn’t appeal at all. But just for fun, let’s look at how Agassi would fit as Nadal’s coach. The main strike against Agassi is that he has no coaching experience. However, his career was so long and complex that he has experienced pretty much everything you could possibly experience in a tennis career. He had great expectations, great success, great disappoints, awful slumps, injuries and comebacks galore. Sound familiar? He had a more drastic career than Nadal, but their experiences on the tour are certainly relatable. If there’s anyone who understands what Rafa is going through right now, it’s Agassi. Time and time again in his career, Andre went through slumps and it looked like his career was over, only to bounce back and be successful. What Andre would understand better than his two coaches, who not coincidentally I’ve listed above, is the media. Right now, Rafa is being given a trial by fire by the media. No one understands that better than Agassi, as he was the media’s favourite whipping boy throughout the 1990s. He would be able to provide so much insight and help Rafa survive this media brutality. Then there’s the fact that Andre has so much experience with slumps. He knows better than anyone how it feels to have zero confidence and he knows better than anyone what it takes to comeback from that. What’s more is that he has the advantage of having absorbed the teachings of both Gilbert and Cahill, which he could pass on to Nadal. On the mental side, Agassi could help Nadal so much. It’s worth noting that, while Agassi doesn’t have any official coaching experience, in 1999, he helped Andriy Medvedev get off his feet and back near the top of the game. Medvedev was struggling and his confidence was shot. He ran into Agassi at a bar and Andre gave him a long pep talk about how to get back on his feet. Medvedev took Agassi’s advice to heart and went on a tear, finding himself in the French Open final two months later, where he would lost to, ironically, Agassi. While Agassi’s “coaching” came within a set of coming back to bite him in that case, he proved that he understands mentality and is capable of helping a struggling player. Then there’s the fact that Andre Agassi played until he was thirty-six, reaching a grand slam final at 35 and being ranked number one in the world at 33. The world has known for years that Rafael Nadal’s body is going to give out sooner rather than later. That’s why I’m calling for him to change up his game. Agassi could help him do this. Agassi played a fairly physical style of tennis and did so well into his 30s. Not Nadal-physical, but still physical. Agassi also had tons of injury issues throughout his career. He knows how to deal with injuries and he knows how to physically extend his career. He’s absolutely the perfect person to help Nadal extend his career, despite his broken body. Andre Agassi is the perfect person to coach Rafael Nadal. He has all the experience and knowledge that Rafa needs to bounce back. Not to mention, Andre had enough bad experiences with overbearing coaches and family members that he knows how to properly treat a struggling player. It would be a dream come true if Agassi were to coach Nadal. Too bad it will never happen. But it would amazing if it did.

Paul Annacone

Probably not a lot of people know Paul Annacone, but he is certainly a great coach. Need proof? He coached two of the greatest players of all time. He coached Pete Sampras from 1995 until his retirement in 2002. He then took over coaching Roger Federer in 2010 and coached him until 2013. Between Sampras and Federer, Annacone has coached players to ten grand slam titles. More importantly, he took over coaching Sampras and Federer while they were near the top of the game, but struggling. He took over and got them back to their highest level. That’s what Nadal needs right now. He’s still a solid player, but he needs a new voice in his corner if he wants to be great again. Annacone has made a career out of doing that for great players. What’s more is that, if you judged based on the styles of play of his players, Annacone knows a lot about aggressive-minded tennis. If Rafael Nadal is to extend his career a few more years, he needs to start attacking more and shortening points. Annacone has proven track record with players who play that style of tennis. The most important thing though is that Annacone is proven as a coach of veterans. Both Sampras and Federer were both already grand slam champions and had been ranked number one in the world when Annacone took over. In fact, Federer was the almost the same age when he hired Annacone that Nadal is now. In the case of Sampras, Annacone also had the very difficult task of replacing Sampras’ long-time coach with whom he had a very personal relationship. It’s the same situation he would facing with Nadal. Annacone is used to taking over in difficult situations with established pros to whom he is an outsider. Any coach who replaces Toni Nadal will have an uphill battle simply building the rapport with Rafa. But Annacone has already done it twice with legendary players. He could certainly do it with a third. Annacone just finished a coaching stint with Sloane Stephens and is working for an online coaching website. He certainly could help Rafa turn his career around, just like he did with Federer before him. And how cool would it be if the same guy coached Federer and Nadal.

Carlos Moya

There is one specific reason why I think Moya could work as Nadal’s coach. Moya has no coaching experience and doesn’t really fit in with what I’ve outlined for Rafa’s comeback, specifically Rafa needing to succeed on faster courts. That being said, Moya would solve what appears to be Nadal’s current issue: confidence. How? If Rafa were to part with Toni, the main reason would be because of the environment that Toni has created in the locker room and on the practice courts (or at least that’s a big reason why Rafa should fire his uncle). Rafa’s confidence is in the gutters right now and he needs a kinder, more encouraging environment if he is to get his confidence back and return to the top of the men’s game. Who better to do that than his childhood hero and mentor? Nadal was a huge fan of Moya growing up and idolised his fellow Majorcan. While Rafa was a youngster on the tour, Moya took the future super star under his wing and helped him get his bearings on the tour. He was a steadying presence for the future King of Clay. Moya has a rapport with Rafa already, so there wouldn’t be that awkward introductory phase that any of the four men I’ve listed above. He would have a more immediate effect on Rafa. And he would probably have the best chance at fixing Rafa’s confidence quickly. While Moya might not help Nadal immediately succeed on fast courts, or even necessarily in the long term, he could help Rafa get his mojo back on clay which would probably help Rafa’s confidence more than winning on hard courts. If Rafa was confident on clay again, that confidence would wash over onto the fast courts more than the other way around. The big catch with Moya is that he has no prior coaching experience. He also currently has three small children so life back on the tour probably isn’t much of an option. Still, even if he couldn’t coach full time, having Moya back in his corner would certainly help Rafa.

If Rafael Nadal is to return to the top of men’s tennis, he needs to change things up. Specifically, he needs to change his coach. Toni Nadal is a big reason for why he is struggling and may continue to struggle. Very few great players spend their entire careers with the same coach. Any of the five men I’ve suggested would do a better job with Rafael Nadal moving forward than Toni Nadal is doing. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Rafa will fire his uncle. Hopefully that decision doesn’t prematurely end his career.

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What if Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic Swapped Coaches?

To preface, this is nothing but pure speculation. There are no rumours to even suggest that there is the slightest possibility of anything of this nature happening. This idea comes purely from my own imagination and nothing else. However, it is a fun idea to consider, so let’s speculate.

What if Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic swapped coaches? Toni Nadal left his nephew to coach the world number one, while Boris Becker took the reins of Rafa’s career. Rafa and Novak are two players seemingly heading in different directions at the moment. Rafa is falling, watching his results tail off, and is in desperate need of a shot in the arm. Djokovic, on the other hand, is at the height of his powers. He’s a runaway freight train that actually might do well with some guidance.

First off, to even consider the possibility (or lack thereof) of this happening, you have to ask why would either player want to part with their coach? For Rafa, he’s never had another coach in his entire tennis playing life. Toni Nadal has coached his nephew since he was five years old. Toni built Rafa into a champion, but now Rafa’s results are getting worse fairly consistently. He’s just lost his clay kingdom and is in desperate need of someone to save him. Toni Nadal is a great strategist, but he’s a terrible shrink. He’s the wrong person to help right the ship that is Rafael Nadal. He’s also very stubborn, and is unlikely to change the direction he’s had planned for Rafa since Rafa was a kid. What’s more is that Toni Nadal understands clay court tennis and has built his player to win there. As I explained yesterday, that won’t work for Rafa for much longer. He needs to be more aggressive and keep matches short. This probably means focus on grass and hard courts more than clay. Rafa needs a new voice to guide him as he approaches his thirties if he wants to stay relevant.

Boris Becker has also done great things for Novak Djokovic. He’s turned Djokovic from a human version of Pong with a huge backhand into an all-court monster. He’s got Djokovic striking the ball more aggressively than ever and absolutely dominating opponents. That being said, Boris Becker has twice now failed to help Djokovic claim the prize he desires most: the French Open. When Djokovic hired Becker, I wrote a piece weighing the pros and cons of the hiring. I made several predictions about how Djokovic would perform under Becker. So far, I’ve been right on all counts. I said Djokovic would win another Wimbledon. Check. I said he would serve better and volley more. Check. I said he would be more aggressive in general. Check. I said it wouldn’t affect Djokovic’s US Open performance. Check (though Djokovic has only played one US Open under Becker). I said Djokovic would continue to have a questionable attitude, Check (disagree? May I direct you to this year’s Miami Masters final to start). And, most importantly, I said that Djokovic would not win the French Open under Becker. Double check. When I posted that article, I was attacked in the comments, being told that I had no idea what I was talking about, my logic was unsound, and I was completely wrong. 18 months later and I’ve been right about everything. Right now, the only thing standing between Djokovic and true greatness is the French Open and I stand by what I said last year: Becker will not help Djokovic win Roland Garros. Djokovic needs someone who truly understands clay and clay court strategy if he wants to win the French Open. He needs to get back to his counterpunching roots and work on methodically breaking down opponents’ weaknesses so that he doesn’t get bullied again like he did in this year’s French Open final.

While both players are presumably quite happy with their coaches, it’s hardly paradise for either. There are strong reasons as to why each player could consider looking for a new coach. And what if the impossible happened? What if they flipped coaches?

Boris Becker might actually be a very good fit for Rafael Nadal. Firstly, he’s a former world number one and multi-slam champion. He understands the mentality and the champion’s mindset. He can probably relate more to how Rafa is feeling at the moment. Becker can provide way more insight and support on the mental side than Toni Nadal can. Rafa needs someone who understands what he’s going through right now. Becker would fit that requirement fairly well. Becker who also bring the same thing be brought to Novak Djokovic which has helped him become the force that he is: aggression. If Rafa is to squeeze a few more years out of his body, he needs to play shorter matches. He needs to play shorter points. Ergo, he needs to end points quickly. He needs to go on offence more. Just look at what Becker has done for Novak Djokovic. Djokovic is serving better than ever. He’s attacking the net more often and doing so quite successfully. He taking the match to his opponents and forcing them to play defence. These are all direct results of Becker’s coaching. If Becker could bring these elements to Rafa’s game, it would make a huge difference. Rafa already has the powerful strokes to attack opponents. He also has the most underrated volley in tennis, which he desperately needs to use more. Yesterday, I laid out five things Nadal needs to do to stay at the top of men’s tennis. Becker helps to fill four of those five categories. Becker understands aggressive tennis, which Nadal needs to adopt. Nadal is aggressive, yes. But he’s more aggressive in the “crush my opponent under the weight of my relentless pressure” type. Becker on the other hand is more of the “blast the ball past my opponent” type of aggressor. Nadal’s type of aggression has wrecked his body. He needs to play Becker’s style of aggression if he wants to extend his career. Obviously, Nadal isn’t going to turn into Boris Becker if Becker started coaching Rafa. However, we’ve seen what Becker is capable of with Novak Djokovic. If Becker had the same effect on Nadal that he has on Djokovic, Nadal would probably win another US Open title and another Australian Open title. Wimbledon would not be out of the question. It could be tough for him to claim a tenth French Open, but nothing is out of the question. If Rafael Nadal is to remain relevant and extend his career, he needs to be more aggressive and keep rallies and matches shorter. Boris Becker has proven that he can teach a player to do that. He would be a pretty good fit for Nadal.

Toni Nadal might not fit with Novak Djokovic as well as Becker would fit with Rafa, but it could still prove to be a lethal combination. There is really only one reason why Djokovic would hire Toni as his coach: to win the French Open. If there is any coach on the planet who understands what it takes to win in Paris, it’s Toni Nadal. He built the most dominant Roland Garros King in history. He understands what it takes to be the champion in Paris. Djokovic is a very good player, but what he isn’t is a great problem solver. Especially on clay. Especially in Paris. Novak Djokovic is a very complete player. Both of his groundstrokes are solid to say the least. He can return serve better than almost anyone in tennis. His serve is solid. His volleys are solid. He has no glaring weaknesses. This is how he beats most opponents. However, his recent loss in the French Open final exposed perhaps his biggest weakness: he doesn’t know what to do when faced with an inspired opponent. We’ve seen it when Djokovic has gone up against Nadal countless times. We’ve seen it twice now in eighteen months against Wawrinka. We’ve seen it twice in major finals against Andy Murray. We even saw it last year at the US Open against Nishikori. Djokovic can defend well, but if plan A doesn’t work and he gets caught on the back foot, he has a hard time turning the match around. If Toni Nadal has one predominant strength as a coach, it’s his tactical genius. Rafael Nadal took down Roger Federer consistently during Federer’s peak years. Outside of Wimbledon (barely) and indoor hard courts, it took a perfect day from Federer to hold off Nadal. That’s because Nadal figured out what he needed to do to beat Federer. Federer from 2004 through 2007 was about as unbeatable as anyone in tennis history. Even this current Djokovic probably couldn’t beat Federer in that time period. The only player who could consistently do it was Nadal. Again, it’s because Nadal figured out the tactics to beat Federer. Of course, Nadal also had the advantage of his gigantic lefty forehand attacking Federer’s one-handed backhand, but that doesn’t change the fact that no one else could really attack Federer. Toni Nadal engrained tactical tennis into his nephew’s brain. Rafa in his prime was probably one of the best problem solver’s in tennis history and a big reason for that is his uncle. That’s where he would benefit Djokovic. When Djokovic was staring down the Wawrinka onslaught last Sunday, he was unable to turn the tide. He found himself stuck on defence. Even from a defensive position, it is possible to control a match and eventually turn it your way. You just need to know what opportunities to look for and how to exploit them. That’s what Djokovic needs to learn how to do if he is to succeed at the French Open. And who better to teach him than Toni Nadal. At this point in his career, any coach could probably see Djokovic through to another Australian Open, US Open, or Wimbledon title. Djokovic is strong enough that he could certainly win any of those titles again. However, he still needs help to win the French Open. There is perhaps no one better to do so than Toni Nadal.

Once again, this is pure speculation. I don’t like making guarantees, but I guarantee that the situation I’ve just outlined will never happen. But it’s hard to deny that it could make sense. Toni Nadal and Novak Djokovic could accomplish great things together. As could Boris Becker and Rafael Nadal. So much history could be made. Obviously, there are other factors at play here that would stand in the way of this happening. It’s unlikely that the Nadals will ever part ways. Even if they did, no way would Toni leave his nephew for his rival. At the same time, it seems unlikely that Djokovic would part with Becker when they’re doing so well together at the moment. Like I said, this will never happen. But it wouldn’t be a disaster if it did. It’s fun to think about what could happen if this impossible situation took place. It will never happen. But hypotheticals are so interesting.  

Hi everyone. I want to say thank you for all your support over the last two years. I wanted to let you all know that I have joined the tennis writing team at VAVEL USA. Please check them out and continue to read my stuff with VAVEL. For the time being, I will be continue to write for sportsblog, but I will be focusing on VAVEL so please check us out.

- A Fan Obsessed

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5 Things Rafael Nadal Needs to Stay at the Top

Rafael Nadal is certainly in a slump and many people seem eager to hammer the nails into his coffin. If you want more details about Nadal’s slump and why he should not be written off, check out my article regarding that specific subject. This article is about how Nadal can shut up his critics and return to the top of men’s tennis. Something needs to change. Rafa needs to find a way to get his confidence back. He needs to fix his game and do it soon if he wants to return to the top five and contend for slams for a few more years. Here are five things Rafael Nadal should do to get back to his winning ways.

Focus on Fast Courts

This might seem like blasphemy because Rafael Nadal is the King of Clay. Nadal will always be the King of Clay. He’s won nine French Opens, a mark that is unlikely to be matched any time soon (unless Federer goes on a tear at Wimbledon over the next few years, and that would only challenge his record for most titles at a single slam. It will be at least a decade before anyone could potentially challenge his clay reign). Thing is, since he’s won the French Open nine times already, he doesn’t really need to win in any more. Sure, ten would be a nice number, but it’s not necessary. Also, as he gets older, it’s going to get harder for him physically to win the French Open. Since it’s played on clay, it’s the most physically demanding tournament on the schedule. Long matches with long gruelling rallies are probably a big reason why Rafa has had so many physical struggles over the years. He won’t be able to keep it up for much longer. We saw it this year. He may not be up dominating the clay the way he used to. If he wants to stay near the top of the game, he needs to focus on fast courts. True, hard courts are the worst for your body because the impact his higher. But matches are also considerably shorter. Grass even more so. Nadal needs to be protecting his body as much as possible, and while hard courts are harder on your body, a short match on hard courts is better for you than a long match on clay. If Nadal starts looking for success on faster courts, and retooling his game to succeed there, he may find some new longevity. Also, considering that there are way more hard court events than clay, further success on hard courts would see him gain more ranking points and get closer to the top. More titles would follow. However, if he is to start succeeding on hard court he is going to need to make some changes to his game. Therefore…

Attack the Net

Rafael Nadal is the most underrated volleyer possibly in all of tennis. Certainly in the top ten. His winning percentage at the net is incredibly high. John McEnroe, one of the greatest net players of all time, for one has claimed that Nadal is the best volleyer in tennis. He’s won multiple doubles titles, including three Masters 1000s and reached the semi-finals of the US Open in doubles. When he won his first US Open title, a big reason why was his willingness to attack the net. And, of course, he’s a two time Wimbledon champion because he was keener to move in. That being said, Nadal doesn’t approach the net nearly as often as Federer or even Djokovic, which is why he’s not considered a great net player. Attacking the net is a great way to go aggressive and keep points short. Volleying is one of the key reasons why Roger Federer is number two in the world at age thirty-three (thirty-four in August). After struggling in 2013, Federer made some tweaks to his game that saw him start to come into the net at almost every given opportunity, the logic being he keeps points shorts and saves his body. Nadal has probably the best finishing volley in tennis. It’s been pointed out, as recently as Madrid this year, that Nadal rarely hits more than one volley in his forays to the net. That’s because his first volley is almost always a winner. Rafa generates enough weak returns that he has plenty of opportunities to charge the net. He needs to start using that deadly volley more. It will keep points short and protect his body. True, he will lose more points at the net than he’s used to, but that’s inevitable when you play more at the net. He’s got a fantastic volley and needs to use it more. Volleys are also way more dangerous on hard courts and grass courts, so if he’s going to continue playing a lot on those surfaces, he needs to attack the net.

Fix His Serve

Another key element of fast court tennis, one that goes hand in hand with volleying, is serving. Rafael Nadal has a decent serve. That’s all. Of the big four, his serve is by far the weakest. In fact, he has one of the weakest serves in the top ten (probably only Ferrer is weaker, maybe Nishikori). He does use his leftiness to good effect, swinging opponents out wide on the AD court, but that’s about where the strength of his serve ends. He can put some pressure on his opponents early with his serve, but it doesn’t get him a lot of free points. As time goes on, he’s going to need every free point that he can get. Rafa has shown in the past that he is capable of doing great things with his serve. At the 2010 US Open, he was dominant on serve, seldom being broken throughout the tournament and hitting his serve with considerably more pace than usual, topping out at 135 MPH (multiple times). In both his US Open title runs, his serve was key. In 2013, he wasn’t broken until the semi-finals. We know that Rafa is capable of doing more with his serve, but not consistently. He needs to start hitting his serve harder, more often. Again, look at Federer. His serve has been a, if not the key factor to renaissance. Federer is currently one of the top servers in the world and that’s why he’s near the top of the rankings. Nadal needs to emulate that. Adding some pace is certainly necessary, but if he can work on hitting the lines with his serve, that would also be very effective. Federer don’t have a fast serve, it’s just super accurate combined with all manner of spins. Considering the injury issues Nadal has had with his back and shoulder, he should focus on that part of the serve. If he makes his serve more accurate and starts hitting it with heavier spin, he’ll get more free points on his serve, or set up his big forehand for quick winners off of soft returns. Again, it’s all about keeping points short and saving his body. There’s a reason why big servers often have longer careers (Ivo Karlovic is well into his thirties riding that bomb).

Play Smarter

This is a double-whammy for Nadal. His groundstrokes are historically some of the most consistent in tennis. A big reason why he’s been struggling this year is that they, like Nadal himself, are shadows of their former selves. His forehand in particular. He’s been hitting more and more errors on his forehand. He needs to cut down on the errors. A lot of the errors have come from Nadal trying too hard to do something his forehand is not currently capable. He’s been trying to hit it the way he did two years ago. Right now, his forehand isn’t that strong. He needs to make adjustments based on his current form, not the way his forehand was historically. A lot of his errors come from Nadal trying to hit shots he has no business hitting. Sure, he used to be able to hit pretty much anything perfectly with his forehand, but he can’t anymore. So he needs to stop trying to hit stupid shots. He can afford to be a bit more conservative. He’s been giving matches away with errors, most notably the Madrid final against Murray. He had been hitting his forehand perfectly the day before against Berdych, but it was off in the final. Instead of adjusting and playing smarter, he kept forcing it and trying to hit shots that weren’t connecting. He needs to hit within his current capability. Like I said, be smarter about how he uses his forehand. For that matter, he needs to play smarter generally. He can’t give away free points. Because of the spin he generates, it’s quite easy for Nadal to keep the ball in play. He seems to have gotten away from that, so he either needs to go back to the heavy spin that got him to the top of the game, or adjust his strokes accordingly so that they can be flatter but avoid too many errors. In a lot of these recent losses, he’s been giving matches away with errors. He needs to stop. He can also be smarter with his strategy. I’ve never understood why Nadal stopped attacking Djokovic’s forehand the way he did in the summer of 2013. He seems to have reverted back to the strategy of forcing opponents out wide in the AD court with his forehand before ripping it down the line. It doesn’t always work. Djokovic has mastered countering it. He needs to adjust his strategy for different opponents. Especially considering that his shots aren’t as strong as they used to be. He needs to mix things up and make adjustments that work to suit his specific opponent. He can’t necessarily dominate opponents anymore, so he needs to start outthinking them.

Change His Coach

This is extremely controversial, but Toni and Rafael Nadal have had a great run. Twenty-four years together is unbelievable and Toni has done great things for Rafa. But at this point, there is nothing more he can do for Rafa. Toni Nadal may be a fantastic coach, but what he’s really good at is building a champion. He’s done that. Now it’s time for someone else with more experience and skill to take over. Toni Nadal may be the best coach in tennis history, but he’s a terrible psychologist. Why is this relevant? Two reasons. One, Rafa has admitted that his current problems are mental, not physical. Toni Nadal can be very tactless and rude to Rafa and is terrible at fostering a kind environment. He is known for calling out Rafa when he doesn’t play well, which is good to a point. But when Rafa’s confidence is in the dumps, which it currently is, the negativity Toni Nadal brings doesn’t help the situation. Secondly, once a player gets into their late twenties, mental toughness becomes more important because your body is probably starting to fail you and it takes mental strength to keep going. Toni Nadal is not experienced at the pro level, and does not know how to deal with this type of situation. Rafa needs a voice in his corner who has been there before, who knows what Rafa is going through and can be encouraging. Rafa owes most of what he’s accomplished to his uncle, but Toni Nadal is no longer useful. Rafa needs to be rebuilding himself as a player, but Toni Nadal is not the man to do the job. Toni has built Rafa into the player he is today and is not going to be able to drastically change directions the way Rafa needs to. And again, I keep coming back to how poor a mentor Toni Nadal is. It’s public knowledge that he is Rafa’s biggest critic. But Rafa isn’t a kid with an ego anymore (if he ever was). He’s a veteran struggling with his head. Rafa needs more of a say in the direction he goes with his play from here on in. If Toni Nadal is one thing, it’s controlling. He hates it when Rafa doesn’t listen to him or do what he wants. He once threatened to quit after the first round of the US Open in 2010 when Rafa didn’t obey Toni wishes (Rafa won the match in straight sets and the tournament, losing only one set). Rafa knows what’s wrong and he needs to be the leader in fixing it, not Toni. Of course, Rafa is not going to fire his uncle. When asked recently about it, Rafa said it would be useless because the issue is not physical, it’s mental. If it was a physical issue, he would consider a switch. But the thing is Rafa has had more physical issues than most superstars and he’s never switched. Maybe something was lost in translation, but Rafa was probably just making excuses. Unfortunately, that very well could be his undoing.

Whether or not Rafa does anything of these things is completely up to Rafa. He’s obviously not reading this article, but I would hope that he’s considering all the options for returning to the top. The fact of the matter is he’s getting old. If he continues to try to dominate the clay, he’ll fail. People don’t dominate on clay into their 30s. It’s never happened before, and considering Rafa’s health and current form, it doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. He needs to switch it up. He may only have a few years left. Hopefully he won’t let himself slip into obscurity over that time.

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