RAFAEL NADAL: Well, because I always thought I always can keep improving. That’s why I am playing, to keep improving and to feel myself better player than before. I go to practice every day not to practice; I go to practice every day to try to learn something and to keep improving my level. I already won on hard, so that’s not nothing new for me to win on this surface. But the conditions in every tournament are different, and I need to have more options to do to try to win against difficult players like today.
Like in the past, I had a lot of problems against Youzhny in the past, because I was playing before two meters behind the baseline or three meters behind the baseline, all the balls higher with topspin, and he had always the chance to come inside. Now I can change the rhythm. I can play a slice backhand. I can serve, win a little bit more free points with the serve, and I can play more close to the baseline.
So the position on court improved, the slice backhand improved, and it was important shot for me to stop the rhythm of that player. For sure the forehand always was good. The true, I think I am more close to the baseline now.
I really don’t think enough is properly said about Rafa’s work ethic, and his practice routines. We’ve heard the Rafa cliches before, he gives everything on each point, he plays the match point by point, he goes 110% during practice… what does that all mean?
I can honestly say I’ve never seen Rafa practice live (though I have watched videos) but that really doesn’t matter. The key to his success lies in this fantastic quote. Does Rafa go 110% in practice? Sure. The important part is that he’s self-evaluating and improving.
It would be simply moronic for someone to go out and practice, emulate a match situation (or play as hard as during a match) and not be your own worst critic. It would be exhausting and get you very little, other than a rough workout. The real point is that Rafa (and Toni) knows what he needs to win. This is why he has improved his serve over the year, and took the risk of changing his serve grip two days before the tournament started.
It’s not all about hitting the ball harder, though. In his quote about Youz, you can see that Rafa is always preparing, thinking, and adapting. Which is why I hate it when people say that he plays every point hard regardless, goes point by point, etc. Not really. His improvement, changes, and intensity in practice are what help him stay calm under pressure and allow him to adapt during matches and set him up for success during matches. That means adapting to the surface, the opponent, and even the time in the match. Rafa doesn’t play every single point the same, regardless of when it is. That’s the whole point.
This may seem strange, but as a musician, this reminds me of a great Steve Vai quote, that went something like this. “Some people are born with great ears and feel for music, but have trouble naturally picking up instruments. Some pick up instruments quickly, but don’t have an inner ear at all. Others are just freaks and have both. For the rest of us, we have to practice these things.” Vai, being one of my favourite musicians, admitted that he had neither, and had to get good at things by practicing, and practicing a lot. And that quote always sticks in my head when I hear about Rafa practicing. Fed is one of those freaks. His natural talent is unparalleled. For Rafa, it’s about putting in the work. Hell, from the get go, he learned to play with his non-dominant hand.
So this post goes out to all the people who say “Rafa will never be able to play late into his career because of how he plays, and the strain he puts on his body”. Sure. But that’s what Rafa is all about, and he’s not stupid. It’s that strain and work that has put him in a position to win his ninth slam, third of the year, and complete the career slam.