Rafael Nadal is likely more dominant at clay-court tennis than any other athlete is at any one thing. Winning a set, let alone a match, against Nadal on clay can seem almost hopeless. As he nears 32 years old, he’s already won 56 clay-court titles and a record 10 French Open championships — with a chance to add an 11th next week.
While his forehand is explosive and his backhand is relentless, it’s possible Nadal’s greatest advantage is that he turns an element of the game that’s a weakness for so many others into a weapon: the second serve. He has had more success on his second serve than any player in tennis history, and on clay, his prowess here is even more pronounced.
In his career, Nadal has won 56.7 percent of his second-serve points on clay. In the past year, he’s upped that percentage to 66.4 percent.1 For most pro players, anything better than break-even on second serve is considered good. Nadal has taken the safety net of the sport and turned it into a battle ax.
This also unlocks the secret to beating him on his favorite surface. Occasionally players can and do make Nadal more human in this area. Bringing him back to Earth by cracking into his second-serve points, players can make the King of Clay look more like … just a prince, let’s say.
This clay-court season, Nadal has lost exactly four sets of tennis. Notice what happened to the percentage of second-serve points Nadal won in those four sets:
Beating Nadal means beating back his second serve
Share of second-serve points that Rafael Nadal won in the four sets he lost on clay this season
|Opponent||Set||Tournament||Second-Serve Points Won|
|Dominic Thiem||1st||Madrid Open||40%||
|Dominic Thiem||2nd||Madrid Open||29||
|Fabio Fognini||1st||Italian Open||50||
|Alexander Zverev||2nd||Italian Open||38||
In particular, Dominic Thiem, who knocked out Nadal in Madrid, was able to significantly erode Rafa’s second-serve dominance with a 7-5, 6-3 win. It was the only match Nadal lost on clay this season.
What have these players done to put a dent — however temporary — in Nadal’s second serve? To answer that question, we must first look at why it’s so dominant to begin with.
In the men’s game at the pro level, the first serve is a statistical powerhouse. It’s a guessing game for the returner — a nightmare of speed, spin and precision. When a player connects on his first serve, he usually wins the point.
When a player misses the mark, it’s time for the second serve. That’s when anything can happen and where break points are won. It’s the real contest. It’s also where Nadal is making everyone else look like fools, statistically speaking.
What makes Nadal’s second serve so good
The second-best second server on clay is John Isner, a 6-foot-10 acing titan who can hammer balls more than 150 mph. Many of the career leaders in this second-serve category are like Isner — they bring the heat.
The clay-court masters of the second serve
Career leaders in share of points won off second serves on clay courts
|RK||Player||COUNTRY||Second-serve point win share|
|2||John Isner||United States||55.7|
|5||Andy Roddick||United States||54.8|
|9||Juan Carlos Ferrero||Spain||54.1|
But Rafa’s not about speed on the serve. He’s not even close to the ATP Tour leaders in aces. In fact, his 1.9 career aces per match on clay is the lowest on the table above. (Isner’s rate is 16.3.) Nadal averages around 110 to 115 mph on his first serve and less than 100 mph on this statistically dominant second serve. Very meh speeds.
The elements that make his second serve so crushing, particularly on clay, are part intuitive and part mystery. Nadal plays left-handed — a topsy-turvy problem for players conditioned to a world full of right-handed serves. A lefty slice serve travels the opposite way of what players are used to.
But slice isn’t the menace on clay that it is elsewhere because players have more time to get to balls on this surface. So if slice is mitigated, why would Nadal’s lefty slice be more potent on clay?
John Yandell is a tennis editor and coach who has examined the spins and techniques of hundreds of professional tennis players. He analyzed Nadal’s serve spins and concluded that while Nadal’s second serve “has an element of topspin” and is “heavy” at around 4,000 rotations per minute, it’s not categorically different from other serves on tour, which combine slice and topspin.
“Most likely it’s just Rafa,” Yandell said. “What he does after he puts the serve in play.”
So the secret could be in what he’s doing when that second serve comes back — a shot sometimes called “the plus-one.”
How to win points off his second serve
Rafa has become a master at managing space on European red clay, where balls travel so far off the bounce that the court plays bigger and wider. On returns, he famously stands far back behind the baseline to take a big swing at the serve, then repositions himself according to where his shot lands. Though he can’t start deep behind the baseline when he serves, he uses that same repositioning approach with his plus-one shot, taking advantage of errors by overzealous returners to dominate these second-serve points.
At the French Open on Tuesday, Nadal won a straight-sets victory in what was considered a tough first-round match. He not only took 62 percent of second-serve points, he also tempted Simone Bolelli into going for too much on those points and committing an unforgivable 23 errors — with only four winners.
So what about the tougher competition? In Rome on May 19, Nadal faced Novak Djokovic, one of the greatest returners in tennis. The two clashed intensely before Nadal won the first set in a tiebreak. It was a set in which Nadal hit a lot of second serves and won his usual high percentage of second-serve points. It’s also a good case study in what Nadal does so well here in terms of positioning.
In this video, Nadal’s second serve puts Djokovic in a defensive position early. An extended rally ensues until Nadal sees his opportunity to step into the court and strike with a forehand winner.
But even what Djokovic did above is preferable to the alternative, which is missing the return all together. If you can prolong the rally, at least you have a fighting chance: Contrary to his reputation, Nadal doesn’t do nearly as well in long rallies as he does in short ones.
Take note, Rafa challengers.