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Five Things All Tennis Players Can Learn from Rafael Nadal

You know, it’s pretty ironic that I’m writing this ‘Five Things’ column on ATP World No. 1 Rafael Nadal just a couple of days after whimsically watching some YouTube videos of the ‘Running of the Bulls’ in Pamplona, Spain.

Why is it so ironic you ask?

Because I swear, Nadal’s jaw-dropping 2013 campaign was a mirror image of many of those often gory videos I watched today– and it’s not because Rafa played the role of one of the young men running for their literal lives.

No, a year ago, the World’s No. 1 ranked player and reigning 2014 French Open champion, was anything but a wayward victim waiting to happen. Nadal was the ‘bull’ himself, running roughshod over any and all that stood in his way as he climbed back to the top of the sport he’s pretty much dominated ever since picking up a racket as a young child.

Despite his surprising loss to newly-minted World No.3 Stan Wawrinka in the 2014 Australian Open Finals, Nadal has won a stunning seven of the last 13 singles grand slam titles.

Having said all of this, there are certainly more than a few things tennis aficionados across the globe can learn from the fiery southpaw Spaniard. Thankfully, I have narrowed down Nadal’s vast skill set to five simple things that all tennis players can learn from Nadal – and before you ask, no, his patented ‘butt dig’ isn’t one of them.

Okay, now that you’ve picked yourself up off the floor from laughter, let’s get started with Five Things All Tennis Players Can Learn’ from ATP World No. 1 Rafael Nadal.

Just when his opponents think they’ve won a point against him, Nadal comes running from ‘off the television screen’ to not only get to what appeared to be an unreachable ball, but often times, hit a jaw-dropping offensive reply as well. While I’m not suggesting that everyone can turn defense into instant offense like Nadal, I am saying that tennis players everywhere should strive to hustle for every ball just as Nadal does.

There is another component to the ‘hustle’ factor that places sole proprietorship on the player alone and that would be the fact that while footwork and movement can be improved through repetitive exercises, ‘hustle’ can’t exactly be taught. It is a quality that each player has to have within them.

As the lead instructor at Williams’ Sweet Spot Tennis Academy LLC in Schertz, TX, admittedly I have been blessed to work with a multitude of young players that are not only talented, but are extremely hard workers that go all out for each and every ball hit to them. I have however, come across a few players that I couldn’t get to move more than three feet unless I threw Twinkie in front of them.

There are myriad footwork, agility and speed drills that can help you improve your movement, but if you want to learn how to hit all-out winners on the flat-out run like Rafael Nadal, then you’ve got to have the desire to hustle for every ball just like the King of Clay does.

While no player on the planet hits with as much topspin off the forehand wing as Rafael Nadal, players everywhere would be wise to observe, imitate and try to incorporate some of the same components Nadal uses to hit his inimitable forehand.

While I’m not suggesting a massive grip change or complete swing shape overhaul, I am saying that players everywhere, especially those that hit flatter groundstrokes, should experiment with creating more topspin, whether through a minor grip change or slight swing shape alteration.

If you’re using a more traditional Continental forehand, try moving over one bevel to a semi-western or, more drastically, a full western forehand. Depending on your level of comfort with each alteration, these changes could be full-time or even part-time depending on what kind of ball is hit to you.

Case in point…while I use a cross between a continental grip and semi-western, I do like to quickly change my grip to something closer to a full western forehand for high balls I hit near shoulder level. This quick adjustment allows me to drive my high forehand with plenty of power while creating more topspin than I usually use for a waist-high ball in order to get the ball back down on the court. The point is, experimenting with your ability to create more topspin on your groundstrokes is always a good thing.

I don’t think I’m making much of a bold statement by saying that Rafael Nadal is arguably the greatest shot-maker in ATP Tour history. I mean, think about it. How many players have you seen routinely hook balls over and around the net posts like Nadal?

I can honestly say that I can’t count the times that I’ve seen Nadal hit an absurd groundstroke that left me both, slack-jawed and pleasantly bewildered. Now, while it would be asking a bit much to expect ‘normal’ players to duplicate Nadal’s extraordinary ability to consistently pull off unfathomable groundstrokes, the fact of the matter is that tennis players of all ages should look to become proactive shot-makers more so than reactive reply artists.

To improve your shot-making abilities, set up a series of cones or drop-down lines and routinely practice putting balls in both corners or up the middle while adding some ‘on-the-run’ hitting drills. Before long, you’ll see your ability to create opponent-stunning shots increase like never before.

Emotion can be both, a good thing and a bad thing depending on how and when you use it tennis fanatics. Here’s a breakdown on when emotion is both, good and bad.

The Good
Many of today’s top players use their emotions to fire themselves up after a big point or outstanding winner, whether it be a groundstroke, serve or volley. For reference, let’s say Nadal is serving at 15-40 and he and his opponent trade a series of searing groundstrokes until Nadal finishes off the point with one of his patented topspin forehands, eliciting one of his patented ‘Vamos’ screams. At this point, you had better believe that the very next point is almost assuredly going to go Rafa’s way. That’s good emotion at its finest.

The Bad
Now, let’s say another player like talented, but mistake-prone Ernests Gulbis is serving at 30-all after a routine groundstroke rally of seven or eight shots and rips a backhand down the line only to see it hit the tape and fall on his side of the net to go down 30-40. Gulbis then lets out a shriek and slumps his shoulders before heading to the ad court for his next serve.

Not only is this clearly ‘bad’ emotion, but Gulbis’ opponent can now sense that he likely has the mental edge for the next point at the very least. Making things even worse is the fact that this bad emotion can carry over to another few points or even the next few games, effectively, changing the entire outcome of a match.

Keep your emotions more in check and never let your opponent see that you’re struggling mentally. This is often a tough task to accomplish, but improving your ability to control your emotions and withstand pressure is paramount to playing winning tennis like Rafael Nadal does far more often than not.

Down the Line Backhand
While I wouldn’t say that Nadal has the best two-handed backhand in the world, he does possess more ability than most to hit winners off of this wing. I also love the fact that Nadal isn’t afraid to go for winners off the backhand wing, particularly down-the-line, like a lot of players.

Players everywhere would do well to shore up their backhands as much as possible while honing their abilities to go for outright winners down-the-line. Generally, when players have a slight opening down-the-line off of this wing, one of two things happens. Either a winner is hit outright or an unforced error occurs that is likely caused by either hitting into the tape or slightly long.

What makes Rafa’s down-the-line backhand so good is his ability to create an inordinate amount of topspin and clear the extra few inches at the net that aren’t present when going cross-court.

Practice your down the line backhand, both from a ‘set’ position and on the run. You’ll quickly notice that your winners off this wing will increase dramatically as your opponents start to realize they can’t expect a routine cross-court backhand every time they hit to that wing.

By adding all five of these elements to your own game, you’ll increase your chances of winning every match you play, even if you don’t look quite like Rafael Nadal in doing so.

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