It will likely happen sometime in the 2020s. On a summer day in Newport, Rhode Island, when Rafael Nadal is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, he might well recall the moment when a significant aspect of his greatness was jumpstarted into motion: the day his uncle Toni suggested he try playing tennis left-handed. Until the age of 12, Nadal, a natural right-hander, had hit with two hands on both sides. But Toni Nadal, the visionary philosopher of the Nadal family, had recognized something; if not an opportunity, then at least a notion.
Tennis life as a lefthander has made all the difference for Nadal. As a start, being left-handed kept him from serving into the sun (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) matches that are played in the afternoon. Even more, Nadal’s lefty forehand has shredded one opponent after another, a concussive jab that can routinely go deep and high crosscourt but is also adept at curving its way down-the-line.
But the truth is that lefthanders are not as prevalent in tennis as they once were. The classic lefty is stiletto-like, players like Rod Laver, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Tony Roche and many more carving up their victims with sharp volleys, variations in speed and spin, and that classic lefty sliding spin serve. Over the last 20-30 years, though, the stiletto’s knife has largely been dulled, due in large part to everything from the ascent of slower court surfaces to the prevalence of the two-handed backhand, a forceful drive which makes it much harder to serve and volley.
Though Nadal’s lefty game creates all sorts of trouble for opponents, his dominant style is from a stiletto. My term: Contemporary Conquistador, a court-conquering, pirate-like manner based on movement – of the feet and from the ball in the form of wicked topspin, combination of groundwork and height smothering opponents into the dust. Added to this is the capacity and desire all lefthanders have for expressive shot-making – those running, whipping groundstroke winners struck by Nadal and his ancestors, Thomas Muster and Guillermo Vilas.
It is interesting to note, though, that many of the improvements Nadal made to his game fairly early in his pro career were the result of him embracing stiletto-like concepts – a slice backhand to mix things up, deft drop volleys, an improved serve.
So far at Roland Garros this year, Nadal has yet to drop a set. Friday he was superb, taking just 90 minutes to obliterate 63rd-ranked Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-0, 6-1, 6-0. “Today was one of the best matches I ever played, without a doubt,” said Nadal.
Tomorrow he will turn 31. Should Nadal win Roland Garros this year, he will join Ken Rosewall and Pete Sampras as the only men to have won Grand Slam singles titles in their teens, 20s and 30s – and add yet another memory to what he will think about the day in Newport years ahead.
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