Fight extreme with extreme!
G’day from Monte Carlo,
Rafael Nadal was at his scintillating best this afternoon against Dominic Thiem, winning 6-0, 6-2 in 67 minutes. I want to focus on one particular part of Nadal’s game – where he stood to return serve.
Look at the picture above of Nadal preparing to return serve.
What do you see?
I see a Spaniard basically in the stands!
Rafa was backed up as FAR as he could possibly go on the expansive center court here in Monte Carlo. His return position was simply absurd. Rafa sets the bar for players in the history of our sport with standing as far back as possible to strike the return.
Why does he do it? Well, here’s my tweet focused on the six benefits.
So, let’s cut to the chase. HOW do you counter it? Here’s a follow-up tweet.
Quite simply, you have got to do SOMETHING to disrupt your opponent – otherwise, you lose. If you play the match on his terms, you lose. If your opponent (Nadal) does something extreme, such as standing back as far as possible, or hits as many forehands all over the court as possible, you lose.
How do you peel him off the back fence when returning on clay in Monte Carlo? Three options (there are probably more) include:
- Hit an underhand serve. (Michael Chang)
- Hit a slow serve and volley (Patrick Rafter)
- Hit a serve then hit a drop shot (Novak Djokovic)
All three options focus on turning Nadal’s ultra-deep return position from a positive into a negative for him.
1. Underhand Serve
Well, first of all, it’s a legal serve. Repeat – legal!
I absolutely didn’t say do it on every serve or in every game for three sets. Doing it just ONCE can throw the curveball into the match you desperately need. Please watch the video below to get a crystal clear understanding of how powerful an underhand serve can be.
The focus is actually not on the underhand serve. It’s how it affects the opponent’s mind and how they will react to it on the next point or points. Thiem needed to drag Nadal away from the back fence to return serve. He needed to get into his mind and disrupt it. The LEGAL underarm serve could have been the disruptor he desperately needed.
So, should you practice it? Please consider the following comments from former World No. 7, Tim Mayotte.
Excellent comments Tim! 👌
2. Slow Serve & Volley
Once again, it’s somewhat ridiculous that I need to preface these comments with this disclaimer, but I will.
You. Don’t. Need. To. Do. It. All. The. Time.
The slow serve and volley is vastly superior to the normal serve and volley in this instance because Nadal wants and expects power – that’s why he is standing half-way to Neptune to return serve. Why give him what he craves? A slow serve and volley would have made Rafa hit a low return around his knees and provided Thiem more time to get closer to the net for his first volley.
Do it once a match, or once a set, or once a game if needed… Do it as much as you feel you need to do it to make Nadal uncomfortable with his return position. Mission accomplished. 🚀
3. Serve and Drop Shot
This is probably the easiest of the three alternatives. Crack a normal serve, let Rafa stand back as far as he wants to return, and if Thiem gets a ball that allows him to hit a drop shot, then do so! It’s just plain common sense. If Rafa is going to stand that far back, give him the opposite. The goal is not necessarily to even win these points. The goal is to make him move up closer to a normal return position on the following points – out of his comfort zone.
If you think DISRUPTING tactics don’t work against Rafael Nadal, think again…
I was part of Dustin Brown’s coaching team (with Scott Wittenberg and Malta Stropp) at Wimbledon in 2015 when Dustin defeated Rafa in four sets on Centre Court. Dustin did an amazing job of disrupting Rafa’s normal patterns with:
- Drop shot returns
- Two first serves
- Constant serve and volley
- Return approaches
- Significant changes in power and spin
Rafa bent to Dustin’s will – not the other way around. Check out this short video. The most fun I have ever had at a tennis match -EVER!
If the opponent is giving you something extreme, like Rafa loves to do on clay with his deep return position, then it’s only logical to counter it with something extreme.
ALSO… think about this rationale. Is it perfectly acceptable to hit a drop shot with a forehand groundstroke? Yes. What about from a backhand groundstroke? Yes. What about with a serve? We have been shamed into not doing it – but the rulebook says we can. Get over yourself and indulge!
Oh, and what about Roger Federer with his seemingly illicit SABR (sneaky attack by Roger). Did his opponents like his half-volley return approach strategy? No. Did it work? You bet it did!
Don’t be embarrassed or afraid to do something outside the norm, especially against an opponent who is doing something outside the norm to begin with.
All is fair in love and war 🗡 🛡
Did the blog post work? Here’s what happened for the rest of 2019.
Musetti just saved a set point with an underarm serve 😅
— Alex | Tennis 🎾 (@Alex_Boroch) January 18, 2021
Musetti with a cheeky underarm serve 😂
— Alex | Tennis 🎾 (@Alex_Boroch) January 31, 2021