Nadal takes hard(court) road to eventual glory

The more aggressive Rafael Nadal plays, the slightly flatter and deeper he hits, the more effective he becomes on hard court, the less he has to run, the longer possibly his career, writes Rohit Brijnath.

So mesmerised is everyone by his arms that hang there like the swollen appendages of a apprentice bodybuilder, so convinced are we that his lack of sleeves is not an exercise in design but intimidation, that we forget we're focused on the wrong limbs. Rafael Nadal's virtues lie not in his arms but in his legs.

Not that Nadal looks a fellow particularly keen on irony, but for all that musculature he can't hit you off the court. But he can run you off it. The Spaniard's reaction time, acceleration and sheer bloody-mindedness translates as follows: however fine your shot, until the umpire calls the score don't presume you've won the point against him.

Earlier this year Juan Carlos Ferrero said: "To win a point against him, you have to hit the ball really good two, three or four times." Just recently at the Masters Cup in Shanghai, Nikolay Davydenko, himself a fellow who probably finds marathons soothing, said: "Just he's running well, fighting well, like right, left. Like (other) Spanish guys, but running amazing because like very fast."

It is fun to watch because desperation has its own beauty, but as a weapon it is also limiting. Nadal is a defensive genius, but still, on surfaces beyond clay, an offensive apprentice, and it is an equation a young tyro is seeking to fix. Without the necessary balance of skills, he will not so much catch Federer as be caught by others.

Not that Nadal is tennis' first runner, for Michael Chang spent a lifetime doing impersonations of a man late for a bus, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario would embarrass an over-active terrier. In recent years, Lleyton Hewitt has constructed a fine game on the twin foundations of rage and rapidity.

In the absence of major stroke weapons, these players have "dig deep" tattooed on their souls. Matches against them are trials, matches for them are like a soldier's tour of duty. Rallies seem to take days, sweat drips in buckets, miles collect in the legs. The cheap point does not live here. In the absence of a hefty serve to bail you out of trouble, spirit must suffice.

Not that these players could ever be accused of squandering their skills, but if it has made for strong careers rarely do runners construct legendary ones. Chang won a single Grand Slam title, Sanchez-Vicario four. Hewitt won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2001-02, but already seems in search of a lost spark. After a while, the legs weep, the lungs holler, the edge blunts.

Nadal is a taller warrior than most runners, for he exceeds six feet and thus has the necessary levers for serve and big shot. He has not found them yet. At 20, he is young enough to believe in immortality, but if his feet are not whispering complaints yet, then his results might tell their own cautionary tale.

If we cleave Nadal's season into two, till Wimbledon, and after Wimbledon, then this is what we find.

Till (and including) Wimbledon, he played 10 tournaments, with 5 wins, 1 final, 2 semis, 1 quarter-final, 1 second round.

After Wimbledon, he played six tournaments, won none, reached no finals, got to 1 semi-final, 3 quarter-finals, 1 third round and 1 second round.

No doubt, of the 10 tournaments he played before Wimbledon four were on clay; of the six events after Wimbledon, none were on clay and all on hard.

So from the evidence at hand we can infer this: first his hard-court game still has scaffolding on it, a construction far from ready; second, he is possibly a trifle tired in the second half of the season after all the running in the first.

Nadal does the few things he does brilliantly but he is perhaps not doing enough things brilliantly. Federer, artfully meshing compliment and insult in one answer, said of the Spaniard at the Masters: "I feel it's a great challenge for me because he plays very much one-dimensional. He always plays the same way, but he does that so well. So it's up to me to be creative and aggressive and everything."

The Spaniard's leftiness (he is the only left-hander in the top 20) and awkward swirling spin makes for a lethal combination, but on hardcourt it barks more than bites. On the artificial surface, his problems add up. He earns less bounce from his spin; shots that land in the service box on clay can sting with their spin, but on hardcourt they're too short, allowing opponents to walk in and take the ball on the rise; he stands too far back to hit winners and is often out of position; the ball comes back to him much faster.

Opponents are working him out, stretching him, enjoying the lack of flatness in his strokes, insulting him by hitting him off court. James Blake did that at the Masters and he's done it before, now leading Nadal 3-0 head to head; Tomas Berdych, another prone to stroke violence, twice beat Nadal in this year's second half and has won their last three meetings. On clay these men are mortified, elsewhere they're emboldened.

Everything is keenly connected. The more aggressive Nadal plays, the slightly flatter and deeper he hits, the more effective he becomes on hard court, the less he has to run, the longer possibly his career.

Theoretically this is simple; in practice, for a player whose DNA has Spain, red dust and topspin in it, the metamorphosis is arduous. Most courters of clay don't change because it's extraordinarily hard and they're fearful of tampering with what has earned them a decent living. It is a safe existence, but greatness demands risk and change.

The Spaniard is an attractive presence because he is undaunted by change and sees a world beyond the French shale. Already for Wimbledon he did the unthinkable and fiddled with his grip, and altered his court position. Now he must go further.

As he said in Shanghai: "Well, I am working a lot with my aggressive game. I am working a lot with my serve. I am improving my serve. That's very important point. I am trying to improve my winner with my forehand and play a little bit more aggressive, no?"

For all his speed, Nadal does not appear the sort to run away from a challenge. He knows, next year, and then the year after, and then the year after, he has to be a better player. It is the only known route to greatness.