On his beloved clay, he’s the best returner around. On grass, however, Rafael Nadal is only number 56. The world number two must undergo a radical transformation as he prepares his campaign to win a third Wimbledon title, which begins against Brazil’s Thomaz Bellucci on Tuesday. In the last few days he has been practicing with big-serving South African Kevin Anderson, the player with the third-highest number of aces in 2012 (379), to gear up for a major grass-court season that also includes the London Olympics tennis competition at the same venue in a few weeks’ time.
“The first time I saw Rafael play on grass I was with Feliciano [López] and he was stepping on it for the first time,” says Francis Roig, the coach who accompanies Nadal every year at the start of the grass-court season. “It was at Junior Wimbledon in 2002. I knocked up with him and he surprised me. The grass evened out his game. In the same way that his forehand didn’t stand out as much as on clay, grass made him return higher up, play straighter and look for the point more. Here he is forced to play more inside the court, two meters closer on the return, and with less spin than on clay.”
Those two meters can also be measured in seconds. On clay, Nadal slows down to await the service knowing the strength of his arm will help him revive the already fading ball and that the extra time his eyes have had to guess the direction of service will compensate for the lost initiative. On grass, that is impossible. There is no arm up to the job. The ball is like a bullet. You go for it, you get on top of it, or you lose it.
You have to play with the surface, not against the surface”
“You have to play with the surface, not against the surface,” says Nadal.
“Do I play higher up [on grass]? Yes, you can’t play at the back,” he says, adding: “Here the first two shots of the point are very important, the start of the play. It is impossible to recover here. The return and the service matter a lot. From there on you have to help yourself, to attack. You cannot start defending because you cannot start running, especially the first week.”
In his opening game of the tournament on Monday Nadal’s Serbian rival Novak Djokovic made light work of Spanish veteran Juan Carlos Ferrero, winning 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. Roger Federer, meanwhile, gave a straight-sets beating to another Spaniard, Albert Ramos.
David Ferrer, who on Saturday collected his fourth title of the year at the ’s-Hertogenbosch grass-court tournament in the Netherlands, is set to begin his campaign against 164-ranked Dustin Brown of Germany.