Thursday, May 27, 2010

Top Spin Wins for Nadal at the French Open

Rafael Nadal has won the French Open Tennis tournament four times. He owes many of these wins to his exceptional top spin forehand. As he goes for his fifth title in 2010, we thought it would be interesting to analyze some video and describe why top spin wins on clay.

Tennis balls loose much of their speed when they bounce on clay tennis courts. This means that the powerfully hit flat shots that Roger Federer uses to destroy opponents on hard courts and grass lose much of their speed on clay. The ball also tends to bounce higher on clay. The flat forehand  that normally stays low to the ground slows down and bounces higher, allowing the opponent to hit it back with interest.

Top spin is the effect on the tennis ball created when it rotates in the same direction that it is travelling. Top spin shots are ideal for clay:
  1. Top spin shots can be hit higher over the net and deeper into the court. This is because the top spin makes the ball drop quickly with a downward force known as the Magnus Effect. The deeper you can push your opponent on a clay court the harder it is for them to play an offensive shot in return.
  2. Top spin ensures that the ball bounces higher too. The top spin bounce along with the extra high bounce on clay results in a return shot that is hit at shoulder height or above making it much more difficult to return with power, especially with a one handed backhand like Federer's.
  3. Top spin also creates a heaviness in the shot.  As the ball is spinning toward your opponent and in the same direction as it travels, a well hit top spin shot will come onto the racket faster after the bounce. This is more evident when the shot is used on hard courts, but Nadal is powerful enough and creates sufficient top spin to have players comment on this aspect of his shot even on clay.
So now that we know what makes top spin effective on the clay at Roland Garros, lets take a look at Nadal's top spin forehand in slow motion in the video below.

Nadal imparts top spin on the ball by swing his racket from a low position to a high position, using the racket to skim over the ball and creating a rotation in the same direction as he is hitting.

As you watch the video notice how Nadal uses all his big body parts, hips, torso and shoulders to create the power in the shot and then uses the arm and racket to create the top spin and direction.
  1. He starts by rotating his hips, torso and shoulders away from the ball as he brings his racket back to a low starting position.
  2. He positions his feet and then starts by rotating his hips first, followed by his chest and shoulders toward the direction he plans to hit, using the kinematic sequence to create racket speed.
  3. Now he can swing his arm and racket through the ball, using the power that was created by his body and the control created by his arm and wrist.
  4. He swings the racket low to high, sliding the racket over the ball during the shot. Some call this a windshield wiper action. This action creates the top spin.
  5. Nadal ends with the racket at shoulder height and over his right shoulder. Depending on the shot he sometimes follows through with the racket even higher than this.
Knowing why Nadals top spin forehand is so effective on clay and how he hits it is one thing, offering effective counter to such a shot is something else. Another French Open final between Nadal and Federer would be a great test of Nadals top spin and clay court skills versus Federer's creative and adaptive style. In previous years Nadal's top spin has won out, but Federer has 16 Grand Slams and is playing better than ever.

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