Over time, Nadal’s serve has evolved into something more than a mere shot to start the point. Nadal has learned to develop a more aggressive serve, and these improvements in his serve is noticeable in his serving technique.
When viewed in slow motion video, Rafael Nadal’s serve has changed considerably in terms of technique as well as the technical motion. This article will discuss the Nadal serve technique as well as point out areas of a proper tennis serve that ordinary tennis players can adapt into their own tennis serve motion.
The Making of the Nadal Serve
When Spain’s Rafael Nadal wraps up his tennis career in the future, he will go down in history as one of the greatest ever to play the game. In the beginning, it seemed like he would just be another one of his country’s numerous clay court specialists. Indeed it was on clay where he made his first breakthrough. Rafael Nadal led his nation’s Davis Cup team to a win in 2004 at home on clay.
Then in the spring of 2005, he swept through the clay court season, winning masters titles in Monte Carlo and Rome. It culminated in him winning his first grand slam title on the clay courts of the French Open, where he beat the smooth and stylish Swiss player Roger Federer along the way. These two players would establish one of the most extensive rivalries of all time.
But after winning the French Open, Nadal fell in the second round of Wimbledon; while his rival went on to win the title. Federer also dominated all the other events except those on clay. Nadal quickly realized that to be truly great, he needed to improve on other surfaces as well. Although he was good enough to win a few hard court titles, he wasn’t posting consistent results on the faster courts. So he went back and studied how to improve his game. One shot that needed vast improvement stood out. It happened to be the most important shot in the game.
The Improvement of the Rafael Nadal Serve
From 2003-2005 the Rafael Nadal serve was simply a means to begin the point. The fact that he was left handed made it more difficult to return than other players who similarly had mediocre serves. But as far as the ability to provide free points through aces and service winners, it was not a shot that he could rely on. His main focus was to get a high percentage of first serves. He hit it with a lot of spin and not much pace.
Nadal usually looked to make the opponent step back or out wide in order for him to dictate the point with the next shot, usually his forehand, which was, and still is, his main weapon.
Nadal’s motion featured a short take back similar to Andy Roddick’s. But while Roddick generated extreme torque on his motion due to his exaggerated coil and ultra-fast motion, Nadal let his racket face remain too parallel to the ground on the take back, robbing him of fluidity.
Above all, he simply did not throw himself upward and forward enough. Most of the power and spin came from the action of his arm and wrist. At least this provided great control
Nadal Serve: The Challenge to Win Different Grand Slam Surfaces
As one of the truly great competitors any sport has ever seen, Nadal relished the challenge of trying to win Wimbledon, the tournament many people believed would be impossible for him to claim. One year after losing in the second round, he surprised everyone by reaching the final where he lost a relatively one-sided match to Federer.
Rafael Nadal did however win one set and it was the only set that Roger lost throughout the entire tournament. The following year, he reached the final again, losing this time in five sets. He had chances in the fifth set but couldn’t convert his break points. He surrendered his serve twice and lost. Throughout this period, Nadal had been tinkering with his service motion, looking for ways to turn into more of a weapon. The changes were happening gradually.
The first objective for the Nadal serve was the addition of extra power. To succeed on faster courts, he knew he had to have the ability to serve aces and just generally make it more difficult to return. He also knew that a player with a big serve could also put more pressure on his opponent. He modified his technique.
The Changes to Rafael Nadal’s Serve Technique
The changes that were seen on the Nadal serve included an exaggeratedly higher take back, greater lift and more weight transfer. The higher take back took the racket way above his head with his elbow above the height of his shoulder. This provided an increase in the distance that the racket head travelled allowing him to build up more speed. It slightly compromised his accuracy but the added momentum yielded greater power. He was able to add about 15 miles per hour to his average serve speed.
He used this newfound serving power to finally win Wimbledon in 2008, beating Federer in one of the greatest matches of all-time. He capped his year by grabbing the Olympic gold medal in singles and gaining the number one ranking for the first time.
Nadal now set out to conquer the hard court slams. He succeeded when he again beat Federer to win the 2009 Australian Open, reducing his great rival to tears. But the US Open remained elusive. The courts there were faster and slicker than in Australia, where the ball bounced higher, complementing his topspin.
The US Open required even more first-strike tennis. Nadal had never even reached the final there and in that same year, he was blown away in the semi-finals by eventual champion Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina. It was one of his worst losses in a grand slam event. Injuries had also threatened to ruin his career. His grinding style was too stressful for even his powerfully built and seemingly sturdy physique.
Nadal’s Serve Motion: Technical Changes
It was now imperative that Nadal learns how to win points more efficiently, otherwise, he would be putting too much stress on his body by continuing to play his grinding style, especially on hard courts. There was no way to win points more quickly than to serve even more aces.
To produce more aces, the Nadal serve had to be even faster but still remain as accurate as possible. He went back to using a service motion that more closely resembled the one he used earlier in 2005. He took the racket up but not beyond shoulder level. His wrist was still slightly bent while moving up on the take back but he was doing a better job of straightening it at the top of the take back.
This ensured that he could cock the wrist more before impact and impart more speed and spin. He also changed his grip very slightly. He also used the continental grip before but he now made a minor adjustment on the way his fingers are spaced on the handle. He now tossed the ball higher and really launched up to hit it at its highest point at full extension. There was also a consequent further improvement in his forward weight transfer.
The whole result was an additional 5 miles per hour coupled with greater accuracy. This resulted in more aces, service winners and unreturnables. There were easier put-aways earlier in the rallies. And ultimately, there was the 2010 US Open trophy. The Nadal serve was now truly a major weapon.
Breaking Down the Rafael Nadal Serve
The Nadal serve has become a serve motion that is more technically sound, and unsurprisingly his serve now shares many of the same commonalities of the top pro servers on tour. The following is a brief breakdown of the Nadal serve:
- Rafael Nadal uses the pinpoint stance, where the back foot moves close to the leading foot during the take back of the racket. Federer, in comparison, uses the platform stance, where the feet remain apart.
- For a flat serve, Nadal’s serve involves a different serve where the toss of the ball is higher and more forward. The height of his toss is optimized to allow him to hit the ball at maximum extension.
- The take back is at an ideal height that his elbow doesn’t rise above the level of his shoulder.
- Nadal coils his torso and tilts his shoulders, just as he bends his knees and gets ready to jump up and into the court later.
- Nadal jumps up, uncoils the torso and unleashes the upper body to hit the ball.
- Nadal fully pronates and uses the power of his arm to generate additional racket head speed. It is now a natural consequence of the correct mechanics he has adapted from ground up, instead of a muscling kind of effort which he used before.
- Nadal follows through completely and recovers quickly just like any other great server in the history of the game.
The Nadal serve has truly come a long way. It is an inspiring testament to what goal-oriented hard work can do for your game.
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