Commentary

Why Nadal needs to break his habits

Updated: June 8, 2012, 12:35 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Perhaps more than any other professional tennis player, Rafael Nadal is a creature of habit.

His practice protocols are unwavering. Note the precisely positioned water bottles, side by side, near his courtside seat. In the locker room, his meticulous routine of showering, drying and dressing -- even his longtime coach, Uncle Toni Nadal, has diagnosed him as obsessive/compulsive.

On the court? He will not willingly step on the lines coming on and off. And even before he offers a serve, there is an elaborate and nuanced 12-step program. Nadal:

1. Towels off his face (left side first, then right) and arms, then accepts balls from the ball person. Sometimes, when he is behind, he eschews the towel.

2. After scrutinizing them, he tosses back the fuzziest-looking one as he walks toward the baseline.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Pierre Lahalle/US PresswirePersuading Rafael Nadal to make changes to his game is not the easiest task.

3. Turning to face the opponent, he carefully places the second ball in his right pocket.

4. Then he slides his right foot along the baseline to clean it, usually taking two swipes.

5. He then flicks the dirt off the hash mark with his left. If it's the ad-court, he uses his left foot on the baseline, then right for the hash.

6. He knocks the dirt off his left shoe.

7. And then the right.

8. As he bounces the ball with his racket 10-12 times, he reaches around with his right hand and adjusts the back of his underwear. On certain occasions, he adjusts the front.

9. Still bouncing the ball, he adjusts the left shoulder of his Nike shirt, then the right.

10. Now toeing the line, he wipes the sweat from his nose with thumb and forefinger, curls his brown hair over the top of his left ear, touches his nose again, then curls the hair over his right ear; he looks like a baseball manager giving signs from the dugout.

11. More often than not, he subtly shifts that tennis ball in his pocket.

12. He bounces the ball three to six times more and begins his toss.

The whole thing usually takes between 27 and 31 seconds -- longer than the legal limit -- depending on the gravity of the point to be played.

Toni Nadal, who has been coaching Nadal for 22 of his 26 years, knows them all by heart. In a recent interview with the Spanish website, "20minutos," he admitted those tics are starting to wear on him.

"Man," he said when the topic came up. "At first I didn't mind, but a player who puts bottles and not step lines is obsessive. Once he told me about a movie, 'As Good As It Gets,' [he said], 'How superstitious the main character was!' And I said, 'He's like you.' And he replied: 'No, no.'

"When you do senseless things over and over, you're superstitious. He has told me before he can stop doing them and I have told him to do it. I like things that are logical. It does not affect his game, but if he needed those things to play well, it would be bad."

A pattern of success

But, the amateur psychologist might contend, he does need them.

That's what makes Rafa's on-court habits so difficult to break. It's hard to argue with 10 Grand Slam singles titles. Repeated routines bring him to a Zen place between points. They are his way of coping with stress.

The foundation of Nadal's rise to the world No. 1 ranking is the consistency of his strategic approach. His predictable patterns, repeated over and over within points, games and matches, are his touchstone.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic is probably the only player who forces Rafael Nadal to come out of his comfort zone.

It all began when Toni put a racket in the left hand of a natural right-hander. Together, they learned what worked -- and what didn't. And, since Rafa won the French Open here seven years ago, these patterns have produced the 10 Slam titles and made him, arguably, the greatest clay-court player ever.

"Elite sports are about patterns and executions, and the best athletes repeatedly do things you can't defend against," said Justin Gimelstob, a Tennis Channel analyst. "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hook shot is a good example. You know it's coming, you just can't stop it.

"The reality is that Rafa Nadal has been able to play the majority of his career by forcing everyone to adjust to his patterns. Andre Agassi was like that, very stubborn about hitting the ball to certain places. I could tell you where it was going before he hit it. To offset his patterns you had to incur tremendous risk."

Which is just how Agassi -- along with today's top athletes like Rafa, Tom Brady and Albert Pujols -- liked it. They all possess the skill to force and then exploit that position of risk in a defensive position.

Even if you follow tennis casually, you have probably unconsciously memorized Rafa's two basics: high lefty forehand to a righty backhand, and lefty serve out to righty forehand. Only when he gets ahead and feels secure with some risk on the offensive side does Rafa deviate from The Plan.

It worked against Roger Federer six times in major finals and helped Nadal supplant him as the world's top player in 2008. The formula was even more devastating against the rest of the field.

But in 2011, a fit and fortified Novak Djokovic was impervious to Nadal's precise patterns. That lefty forehand, with all its gusto, was spinning right into Djokovic's backhand, the best in all of tennis. The serve was diffused by the best return in the game. After that, the rest of Rafa's intricate sequences were easy to solve.

As a result, Djokovic won all six of his matches against Nadal in 2011 (all finals) and then the 2012 Australian Open final. During that spectacular match that consumed nearly six hours, in a moment of crisis, Nadal finally changed his approach. He didn't win the match, but in the recent finals at Monte Carlo and Rome he's reversed that 0-for-7 streak against Djokovic.

"People tend to make adjustments out of self-preservation," Gimelstob said. "A lack of options and dire circumstances sometimes trigger a more aggressive mentality."

Nadal and Djokovic are careening toward a French Open final that is rich in history. Dojokovic is trying win a fourth consecutive Grand Slam singles title, while Nadal seeks a record seventh title at Roland Garros.

The question is, can Rafa fight his most primal instincts? Can he -- will he -- continue to play out of character?

Stepping up

He's done it before.

Rafa grew up playing on the heavy red clay courts in Manacor, Majorca. His muscular fitness and developing mental toughness allowed him to play eight to 10 feet behind the baseline, concentrate on defense and run his opponents into the ground. It was a passive-aggressive approach, and it worked nearly every time.

He won the French Open for the first time as a teenager in 2005, but he got bounced in the second round at Wimbledon. Even though the grass courts at the All England Club weren't as fast as they used to be, the low, skidding balls demanded an aggressive-aggressive game against the best players.

[+] EnlargeNadal-Djokovic
Filippo Monteforte/AFP/GettyImagesAfter seven straight wins versus Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic has not been able to keep up the pace on clay this year.

After losing to Federer in the final in 2006 and 2007, Nadal broke through the following year in an epic finale. He beat Federer by reluctantly moving his default position forward to the baseline; there were times when he stood inside the baseline to return a first serve. He added more than 10 mph to his serve and started getting a few free points. Sometimes, against his better judgment, he flattened his groundstrokes and went for winners. Now, he has made the final each of the past five times he's played at Wimbledon.

Fast forward to this year's Australian Open final, with Nadal trailing Djokovic two sets to one, down 4-3, love-40 in the fourth set.

"Go look at the tape," Gimelstob said. "Rafa changes it up. He starts serving more to the Djokovic forehand. He starts using the serve as a weapon, not just to start points. He starts going cross court way earlier in points. He's sneaking into net more, standing closer to the baseline to take the ball earlier.

Darren Cahill is another keen student of the X/O game. He coached Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt to the No. 1 ranking and makes a living today as an analyst for ESPN.

"Yes," Cahill said, "I see it more in Rafa's shots. He held his court position a little better at the Australian Open. Maybe he felt a bit of panic, but he stepped up in the court and was more aggressive to Novak's forehand side. He was forced to take chances from bad positions. I feel like he was putting 3-5 percent more on each shot to try and get ahead in the rallies."

Brad Gilbert, who also coached Agassi and is a colleague of Cahill's at ESPN, believes the Australian was the beginning of Rafa's turnaround.

"I feel like if Rafa makes that backhand at 4-2, 30-15, fifth set, he would have been up 5-2," Gilbert said. "Boy, that was an expensive miss, but at least in his mind he was there. He had it.

"You saw that confidence in Monte Carlo and Rome."

Subtle, incremental changes

Throw out that 6-3, 6-1 win over Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final. Djokovic, clearly diminished in the wake of his grandfather's recent death, was not himself.

"I definitely don't want to take away anything from Rafa's win. He was a better player," Djokovic said. "But it's a fact that I just didn't have any emotional energy left in me. I've never been caught up in this kind of emotional situation before."

Nevertheless, it was a psychological lift for Nadal.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic/Nadal
Hawk-EyeThere was an appreciable difference in Rafael Nadal's distance from the baseline the last time he played Novak Djokovic in Rome.

"Winning against Novak in [the] final after losing a few ones is important for me," he acknowledged afterward.

Rome, however, is worth examining.

Nadal beat Djokovic 7-5, 6-3 in 2 hours, 21 minutes and saved six of seven match points. A year earlier, it was Djokovic prevailing in the Rome final over Nadal, 6-4, 6-4.

We asked the folks at ATP Media to crunch the numbers with their advanced statistical analysis.

In 2011, Nadal ventured inside the baseline only 7 percent of the time, but this year it was 11 percent. At the point of impact of his groundstrokes, Nadal was 6.1 feet behind the baseline in 2011 -- and 5.8 feet a year later. That 3.6 inches might not seem like a big disparity, but in terms of elite tennis it can make a significant difference. Nadal, in taking the ball earlier, made it more difficult for Djokovic to create his sharp angles. Those 3.6 inches might have gotten him to two or three balls he might not have reached a year ago.

Moreover, Nadal hit his first serve an average speed of 115 mph this year in Rome, 3 mph faster than last year. The second serve averaged 1 mph faster. His average net clearance was 27 inches in both instances, but his groundstroke speed this year was 73 mph, more than 1 mph faster than a year ago. Again, subtle differences that can lead to a point or two.

In critical moments, when he was even or behind, the analysts pointed out, Rafa went against his history and used shots he normally saves for a lead. When you're sitting on the fastball, a changeup can be devastating; Nadal has been hitting to Djokovic's forehand more under duress, keeping him honest and setting up backhand winners.

The two have met 32 times, but never in a best-of-five match on clay. If the seeds hold, we'll see it Sunday on Court Philippe Chatrier.

Cahill is curious to see how Djokovic responds.

"The biggest factor working for him is the belief he can play each ball, for what it's worth, against Rafa," Cahill said. "In the past, he was pulling triggers too early in points. He didn't have the belief that if it was a physical tennis match he could prevail. Now, he's happy to sustain a 15-, 20-shot rally where he wasn't willing to do that before, to stay with him and look for that one ball that can win the point."

Gimelstob, too, is looking forward to seeing the best mover on hard courts (Djokovic) against the best mover on clay (Nadal).

"As a result," Gimelstob said, "Djokovic is going to have to take more shots than usual. On clay, it's not a clean bounce, so there's more risk. The margins move to Rafa on clay and five sets.

"The difference for No. 1 players versus the rest of the field is that they convince themselves that they have to make adjustments. Rafa has proven during his career that he can adjust. Now, he needs to make these adjustments to extend his comfort zone."

And Djokovic's discomfort zone.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.