Why does Rafael Nadal stand so far back to return serve, especially on clay?
It’s an extreme strategy that other players seldom employ to the same degree, but it works wonders for the Spaniard. An Infosys Insights deep dive into Rafael Nadal’s dominant return game on clay courts reveals that his ultra-deep court position to return serve creates several small benefits that all add up to one big advantage.
The data set comes from a random sampling of 20 of Nadal’s clay court matches in the past two seasons, where he went 18-2. The two losses both came against Dominic Thiem, at the 2018 Mutua Madrid Open and the 2017 Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome.
Advantage One: More Returns In
When Nadal stands way back, the serve naturally slows down more at contact than it does for a returner who stands closer to the baseline. Nadal also gets to make contact with the ball at a lower height, which is much more in the strike zone around his waist than up higher around his shoulders. All that adds up to more returns back in the court.
The return of serve stroke typically has a shorter, blocking motion compared to a regular groundstroke. But because Nadal stands so far back and creates more time, he is able to take full cuts at the return and deal with it much more as a full-blooded swing than a blocking stroke.
First-Serve Returns Made
Nadal = 84.1%
Opponents = 79.4%
Second-Serve Returns Made
Nadal = 90%
Opponents = 85.2%
More returns in means fewer free points for the server.
Advantage Two: More Points Won
Once Nadal makes his return from deep near the back of the court, he immediately looks to move forward to a more regular baseline position to develop the point. Very few players have the strength to return the ball deep to the server when standing so far back in the court to return, which is one of the reasons why more players don’t do it.
Nadal not only puts more returns in play, he wins the ensuing rallies considerably more often than his opponents, who are returning from a more traditional position.
First-Serve Returns Won
Nadal = 44.7%
Opponents = 31.1%
Second-Serve Returns Won
Nadal = 52.4%
Opponents = 33.2%
The obvious two questions:
Would Nadal enjoy such healthy win percentages over his opponents if he stood in a more traditional return position? Probably not.
Should opponents stand far back like Nadal to return serve as well? Again, not advisable.
Nadal has made a career out of hitting an extreme forehand with extreme technique that works for him. The same can be said of his ultra-deep return location.
The beauty of our sport is that there are many different ways to be successful, and what works incredibly well for one player may not be a good fit for another.