How Nadal's High-Risk, High-Reward Serving Is Paying Off

  • Posted: Jan 26, 2022

Rafael Nadal committed 11 double faults against Denis Shapovalov in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, more than he had in any previous match of his ATP Tour career. But the Spaniard and his team were unperturbed by a stat that they see more as the collateral effect of Rafa’s plan for 2022: to serve faster on his second serve.

The numbers show that the initiative is working. At Roland Garros in 2021, his most recent Grand Slam tournament before this year’s Australian Open, Rafa had an average serve speed of 180 kilometres per hour on his first serve and 150km/h on his second serve. So far, in the year’s first major, where he has won five matches en route to the semi-finals, he has produced an average of 187km/h on his first delivery and 162km/h on his second.

These statistics put him among the greatest servers in our sport. In fact, the 2009 Australian Open champion now has a greater average speed on his second serve over these two weeks than Matteo Berrettini (161km/h), who he will meet in the semis on Friday, Russian Daniil Medvedev (156km/h) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (155km/h).

“[Rafa] is realising how many free points he’s getting. The other day I was talking to him about it before his match against [Adrian] Mannarino. He served 16 aces and six doubles,” said one of Nadal’s coaches, former World No. 1 Carlos Moya. “I told him that I would far prefer that to three aces and no double faults. Because at the end of the day you want the points to be shorter, you want to be aggressive. And the first opportunity to do that is the serve.”

He is taking a risk on both serves in order to win service games more easily, put more pressure on the returner and to save as much energy as possible on court. This is the current philosophy for Nadal, who on Friday will play the 90th match of his career at the Australian Open. It is a philosophy that is delivering results.

Nadal’s Serve In 2022 (including Melbourne Summer Set)

 Aces  52
 Average 1st-Serve Speed  188km/h
 Average 2nd-Serve Speed  164km/h
 1st-Serve Pts Won  79%
 2nd-Serve Pts Won  54%

“I think that yesterday [against Denis Shapovalov] was a clear statement of that intention, and that’s why the serve was an essential part of winning the match,” added Moya, who has been coaching Nadal since 2016. “At 35 years of age you have to increasingly move towards that type of match. Yesterday’s match is a statement of intent that he is willing to take risks, to accept that risk-reward ratio. So far, the benefits have been very high.”

Nadal has not been shy about taking risks in Melbourne, even in high-pressure situations. For example, the first of the four set points he faced in the tie-break against Mannarino in the last sixteen, he saved with a 169km/h second serve that forced the Frenchman into a mistake. Until that point, Rafa had only produced one faster second serve172km/h at the start of the match.

Against Shapovalov, although he served a significant number of double faults, Nadal continued to take risks. In fact, against the 22-year-old Canadian, apart from winning his first 12 service games without facing a break point, he produced his highest average service speed this fortnight in Australia – 190km/h on his first and 165km/h on his second.

Nadal’s Avg Serve Speed At The 2022 Australian Open

 Opponent  Round  1st Serve  2nd Serve
 Marcos Giron  1st  188km/h  165km/h
 Yannick Hanfmann  2nd  188km/h  161km/h
 Karen Khachanov  3rd  185km/h  158km/h
 Adrian Mannarino  4th  187km/h  165km/h
 Denis Shapovalov  QF  190km/h  165km/h

Just five years ago in Melbourne, Nadal’s goal in his first Grand Slam with Moya as one of his coaches was to go from a 140km/h average to 150km/h for his second serve. The progress since then has been remarkable. “Our first goal was to reach 150km/h in 2017, when he was at 135 to 140. But this tournament has shown that his average is now over 160,” said Moya.

Nadal’s improvement with this strategy — having changed his technique three years ago, also in Australia — is a reflection of his desire to keep winning despite his age, and his dream of claiming a 21st Grand Slam title is looking increasingly achievable.

Did You Know?
Nadal has only been broken four times in five matches at this year’s Australian Open (78/82, 95% hold rate).

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