In many ways Nadal’s win against Medvedev in the Australian Open final was classic Rafa. The passion, the athleticism and the never say die attitude that we have become so accustomed to over the years was there for all to see. Make no mistake though, the Rafa we watched on Sunday is a very different player to the one who began life on tour as a counter puncher almost 20 years ago.
In fact it could be argued that Rafa’s game has evolved more than any other player in history. At his core though his game has always revolved around the usual Spanish coaching foundation - court positioning. It’s a concept that Nadal has mastered better than any other player in history. But what makes Rafa better at positioning himself than others and how did his understanding of court positioning and willingness to break one of the golden rules help him to beat Medvedev?
Maintaining a good court position - A Lesson First we must understand some of the basic theory behind court positioning. Maintaining a good court position is one of the five core tactics of tennis, put simply it means recovering to a good position before our opponent hits their shot.
The best position to recover to changes slightly based on where you hit your previous shot. In a baseline to baseline exchange players should recover slightly on the cross court from where their previous shot went. This is because the other player has significantly more angle to work with on the cross court compared to the down the line. You then recover to the middle of those two points. The picture below shows Nadal well positioned to deal with either outcome. The distance from the baseline changes based on if a player is likely to be defending or attacking on the next shot.
The further away you are from the centre of the court the more time pressure you are under to recover. Players try to minimise this disadvantage by using a combination of:
Giving their shot more height and less power to give themselves longer to recover. Spin helps to slow the ball down without making it easy to attack.
Using footwork patterns which allow them to recover faster.
Hitting cross court more when out of position to make their recovery position closer to them.
The amount of topspin Nadal hits on his groundstrokes allows him to play with more net clearance than other players, especially when he needs the extra time.
Then you have the footwork. Footwork and shot selection are way more intertwined than many people realise, to the point that the stance you are in, court position and recovery position almost always decide your shot selection. It sounds a little complicated but when broken down it is quite simple and Spanish players like Rafa will have worked on it every day for years.
Graph showing average net clearance of the big 4 players in 2013. Whilst the graph is a little dated it hasn’t changed much In that time.
How Rafa out manoeuvred Medvedev
Breaking A Golden Rule
Rafa broke one of the golden rules of court positioning against Medvedev. When hitting to Medvedev’s backhand Nadal would consistently recover on the ‘wrong side of the court’. Needless to say this is really unusual, however when you break it down it makes a lot of sense in this match up.
Firstly, Medvedev hits his backhand down the line more than any other play on tour. Secondly Medvedev hits the ball very flat on his backhand meaning hitting angles is riskier for him than most players and even if he does hit an angle it is likely to be less extreme. Nadal definitely factored this in to his positioning.
Another big feature was Nadal’s use of slice. Nadal used the short slice down the line more than I’ve ever seen him play it before. This was because Medvedev is uncomfortable hitting low backhands from higher up the court. When you are dragged into that mid court area you have three options.
Buy yourself time with height and spin/slice and recover to a good position. Medvedev doesn’t have a great slice or much topspin on his backhand.
Approach the net. Not Medvedev’s strength as his volleys have some technical flaws.
Hit aggressively but give up court position. (This option isn’t recommended consistently)
Medvedev would always prefer to approach out of the three options above. When approaching in singles down the line is the best option as it is easier to get into a position to cover the court better. However Nadal’s unorthodox positioning made the down the line a worse option than it usually would be and instead invited him to hit cross court to Nadal’s forehand.
The Drop Shot
In 2019 Rafa massively altered his returning position. Instead of playing close to the baseline he started returning serve from several meters behind the baseline. The idea is simple. The further back you are the more time you have and the slower the ball will be moving. This allows Nadal to take a full swing at the ball to hit the height and topspin to neutralise the point straight away, thus largely taking away the advantage of the serve. Whilst many players have copied this tactic it’s fair to say none can do it as well as him, this once again is because of the spin he can hit making it so difficult for players to attack and allowing him time to recover.
Graphic shows Nadal returning from around 5m behind the baseline
A disciple of the almost out of the stadium return position is Medvedev. In their 2019 meeting in the US Open final both players attempted to counter the position with the serve and volley and both had good success. Whilst the serve and volley was still successful in this final, Nadal implemented an additional counter, the drop shot.
Returning from so far back means if you don’t hit the ball with as much height and spin as Rafa does then it is difficult to recover close to the baseline in time. Combining the slice wide on the ad court with a cross court drop shot is an unusual tactic, however here it made perfect sense as Medvedev was unable to recover close to the baseline fast enough. Nadal’s ability to adapt to this unusual situation displayed his excellent understanding of court positioning.
Rafa used the drop shot well to exploit space left by Medvedev and to bring him to the net where he’s less comfortable.
Keeping points shorter by attacking the net
When Nadal went two sets down he knew he needed to change something. Over the last decade Nadal progressed into being statistically the best volleyer in the world when it comes to the percentage of net points won. It’s not because he is the best volleyer in the world but because he picks the best moments to come in, usually when only one volley will be needed to win the point. Attacking the net is the best way to keep the points shorter, something that the post match stats showed suited Nadal in this match up.
Average rally length:
- Set 1 = 6.27 shots - Set 2 = 6.83 shots - Set 3 = 5.56 shots - Set 4 = 5.03 shots - Set 5 = 4.31 shots
Winning 6/9 net points in the final set against maybe the best counter puncher in the world was one of the deciding factors in the match. It’s also something which he most likely wouldn’t have been able to do in his early years. In fact in Medvedev’s semi final against Tsistipas we saw Tsistipas have a game plan of coming to the net wherever possible and he had limited success. Once again it wasn’t to do with technique it was Nadal’s reading of the game that allowed him to do what others have failed to against Medvedev.
The championship point highlighted this brilliantly. Nadal’s cross court forehand didn’t scream approach shot to anyone. Nadal realised that Medvedev was going to struggle to do much with it and as soon as he realised that he approached. It also didn’t look to me as though Medvedev had seen him approach and his shot suggested the same, a loopy cross court shot doesn’t scream passing shot attempt. It’s not the text book approach down the line and cover the angles, it’s his instinct and reading of the situation that separates him from the rest.
Nadal’s display of mastery court positioning was a fitting way to win the historic 21st slam. It was also pretty fitting that Nadal was able to exploit a weakness in a player who had tried to copy his return position but couldn’t do it as effectively. Nadal’s whole game was moulded around court positioning where as others are walking on the trial he blazed. It was a reminder, as if we needed one, that there is only one Rafael Nadal.