Why is it so difficult to defeat Rafael Nadal? More than 10 ATP Tour players who have first-hand experience have tried to solve the puzzle, and they all agreed that facing the Spaniard is one of the biggest challenges in the history of this sport. Only a few lucky men have managed to defeat him in the over 1,200 matches he has contested throughout his career, with a return of eight wins from every 10 outings (83.3%).
An unbreakable attitude, intensity from the entrance tunnel through to the final point, an iron mentality and a supernatural talent for playing tennis are just a few of the answers as Carlos Moyà, Juan Carlos Ferrero, David Ferrer, David Nalbandian, Guillermo Coria, Albert Costa, Tommy Robredo, Nicolás Almagro, Roberto Bautista Agut, Marc López and Ramón Delgado – Nadal’s first victim – offer their opinions to ATPTour.com.
It all started on 29 April 2002, the day that Nadal opened his account of wins. “He was a kid with special qualities; the attitude, the enthusiasm he put into the match and a different mentality. His ability to handle difficult moments is unique,” said Paraguayan player Delgado, who was powerless as a 15-year-old Nadal beat him in Mallorca for his first ATP Tour win.
One year later, Albert Costa, then the World No. 7 and defending French Open champion, met Nadal in the second round of the ATP Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo. The boy from Manacor was 16 and yet to break into the Top 100.
“Rafa was starting out on tour and I had heard people speak of him,” said Costa. “He surprised me. I saw that he had tremendous grit and I started to worry, because I could see that he was playing better than I was really expecting. His concentration was what stood out to me. From the first point until the last, he was 100% focused. It was incredible that being so young he was able to play every point with the same intensity.”
A month later in Hamburg, one of Nadal’s current coaches Carlos Moyà, found himself opposite the young gun for the first time. Nadal picked up his sixth victory on the German clay against the World No. 4, and just his second career win against a Top 10 player. “When he beat me he was very shy, very nervous and he told me he was sorry,” Moyà recalled “I also understood that it would be the first of many times he would beat me. I already knew him and I knew he was going to be a great player. He showed me that he had what you have to have to beat a player in the Top 10, and he has produced everything that he promised back then, and more.”
Nadal continued on the path he set out on as a teenager until claiming his 1000th win this season as one of the best players of all time. One of his closest friends, colleagues and rivals, David Ferrer, with whom he enjoyed a great rivalry between 2004 and 2019, explains why he is so hard to beat.
“From before you go out on court it is already a roller coaster, because he’s already warming up and jumping and on a mental level it is a little deflating,” Ferrer explained “You know that he will make you play until the final point. Rafa is mentally the best there has ever been. I can’t speak of other players I didn’t play with, but of the ones I’ve seen, there is no equal.”
Nadal’s countryman knows exactly what he is talking about. In the 32 matches they played, he was only able to win six. “Even when you win the first set, which was very rarely for me, you know that Rafa will come back. No matter how badly he’s playing, I knew I’d have to play my best tennis. I’ve never seen him lose his head, I’ve never seen a match in which you don’t have to beat Rafa right up to the last point. That says a lot about him, because he is the best in history in terms of preparation, mentality and never giving up. He always looks for a solution.”
Another player with whom Nadal had an intense ATP Head2Head in the early years of his career was Guillermo Coria, who agreed with Ferrer. “He has a 100% winning mentality. You don’t see a single match where he doesn’t fight from leaving the locker room until the final point. Whether you’re playing well or badly, he is always at full throttle, fist pumping, spurring himself on, going through his rituals. It’s very difficult to beat a player with that mentality, which also goes along with the physical aspect and tennis ability. It’s impossible.”
It was against the Argentinian that Nadal started to build his legend in the ATP Masters 1000 at Monte Carlo and Rome in 2005. Despite the Spaniard winning in both finals, Coria has positive memories of both encounters. “I loved it, because I knew that it was a battle of fitness and tennis ability. It was a game of chess. Every point was endless: you had to win the point five times and it was a spectacular challenge. Winning those endless points was amazing, but it wears you down. If you’re not at 100% in every aspect and you have a little bit of doubt, ciao.”
Juan Carlos Ferrero, one of the three ATP Tour World No. 1s Spain has produced, alongside Moyà and Nadal himself, highlights three aspects that explain the magnitude of the challenge of facing the Mallorca native: “You know that he’s not going to give up on any point, the intensity with which he’s going to play every single point of the match and that mentally he’s not going to give up at any point. They are the three most uncomfortable things you can find in an opponent.”
Ferrero took to the court on nine occasions between 2005 and 2010 against Nadal, and there was one constant. “Against other players, you could hope that they weren’t at their best, that they would make more mistakes or not find their rhythm, but you know those things aren’t going to happen with Rafa because even on a bad day he manages to compete in almost every point, even when his tennis is not its best that day. Rafa is the king of knowing how to adapt to any situation in the match.”
For his part, Tommy Robredo has never managed to beat him in the seven attempts in their ATP Head2Head between 2005 and 2013. “The main difference compared to [Novak] Djokovic or [Roger] Federer is the intensity with which Rafa always hits the ball. It bounces a lot, with great acceleration and that means you are always uncomfortable. That ball Rafa hits means that, even if you are in the right place, it is very difficult to control it and hit it where you want. He has the ability to make you play awkwardly at any time.”
“I think he has one of the best tennis brains of anyone, he always knows where to play to you so that your shot is good for him to attack next time,” Robredo added. “As the years have gone by I think he has improved the aggression, he looks increasingly brave on court.”
In addition to the winning mentality, positive attitude, physical strength and the intelligence to know what shot to play at all times. Robredo pointed out another virtue that makes it even tougher to play Nadal; the wrist of the hand that holds his racquet. “On advantage points, which are the most important, he can start with the wide slice serve that he does so well and with the run-around forehand he sends it back on the other side, which does a lot of damage. He has also improved his cross-court backhand so much.”
David Nalbandian echoed Robredo’s assessment. “Playing against him is different to the rest, because of the way he hits the ball and how he spins it, the spins he generates are different to anyone eels. As he’s left-handed it’s more difficult. In that sense it’s very difficult to play against him, you have to have very good legs to be able to go forward without losing your position and he’ll push you back.”
The Argentinian defeated Nadal the first two times they played. The following five times, it was the Spaniard who came out on top. “The thing that is most noticeable to me is his energy and the stamina to play at that intensity, which is extremely high and he can maintain it for so long. Physically he’s an animal and that’s where he stands out tremendously from the rest. Also the winning mentality he has, of course.”
That mental side that Nalbandian mentions also rings true to Nicolás Almagro. “Rafa doesn’t tire of winning, of improving, he always wants more and all of that makes the difference between him and the rest so big. He is special, hyper-gifted and everything he achieves is within reach of very few,” said the Spaniard, whose Head2Head with Nadal between 2004 and 2017 was 15-1.
“Playing a match with Rafa is an experience that will always push you to the limit,” he continued. “He’s a player that pushes you at all times, from the warm up to the final point. He takes you to a very high level of stress which is difficult to maintain for the whole match, that’s why it’s so difficult to play against him. He’s a player that barely makes any unforced errors, he doesn’t give you anything and to beat him you have to be at 120% on every point and he has to have an average day.”
In more recent times, Roberto Bautista Agut, the No. 2 Spaniard in the FedEx ATP Ranking also points to the statistics being racked up by Nadal. “His numbers are tremendous, but maybe I would highlight that, to reach those numbers, he must have great mental capacity to know how to face, for example, the start of Roland Garros every year. I was fascinated to see how he arrived there this year, he created his plan, honed his game and the final ended as always, claiming number 13. I think that his ability to know how to start each year like the last one didn’t happen is out of this world.”
Marc López also highlighted Nadal’s talent as a doubles player, a discipline in which he has a further 137 wins. “When I play doubles with him, he makes everything easy for me. I’m lucky to have a superstar beside me, I know I have the best player possible. It gives you peace of mind, confidence, he always supports you on bad days and tries to help during difficult moments. He is also someone who, although he is so much better than me, accepts that I may say things to him that I see he could improve on. He has the ability to make you feel good on court, I’m lucky to have played with him.”
These are the words of a tour trying to explain all the keys to the challenge of facing Nadal. A millennial challenge, with almost always the same result.