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Rafael Nadal's Relentless Style of Play May Be His Undoing
As Nadal looks to the future, the fundamental question is twofold:
Can he retool his game so he runs less and finishes matches more quickly, and still achieve world-class results?
Or is Nadal's punishing approach to tennis -- more defensive than offensive, in which he wears down opponents physically and psychologically by retrieving ball after ball -- so encoded in his competitive DNA that such an overhaul is unthinkable?
Francisco Roig, who shares coaching duties with Nadal's uncle Toni, who taught him the game at age 4, believes Nadal can and must make these changes. Nadal and his team are already on the task -- working to beef up his serve and play inside the baseline rather than 10 feet behind it; scheduling shorter, more efficient practices; and tempering Nadal's compulsion to exhaust himself by tracking down every ball.
"Rafa is the kind of player who likes to play [a] lot of matches," Roig said. "He seems to need to play a lot of matches for his confidence."
But this isn't ideal for veterans or, in a case like Nadal's, players whose style of tennis is particularly bruising.
Federer, 28, has pared back his schedule in the last two years. At 27 , top American Andy Roddick no longer hits endless buckets of balls to perfect his serve.
Though Nadal is the youngest among them, he has as many miles on his legs as Roddick, whose booming serve ends many points before they start.
But Nadal played a tour-high 93 matches in 2008 -- a brilliant if withering run in which he won his fourth French Open, then Wimbledon, ascended to No. 1, claimed Olympic gold and helped Spain reclaim the Davis Cup. Federer, by contrast, played 81 matches; Roddick, 67.
"He has to exchange the quality for the quantity," Roig said of Nadal. "The goal is to try to make the matches shorter."
There's ample evidence of Nadal's ability to adapt.
Naturally right-handed, he was taught to play tennis left-handed by his uncle, who felt it would be an advantage. At 10, he was weaned from a two-fisted forehand. And last year, he achieved a feat not seen since 1980, reinventing his clay-court game for grass -- shortening his backswing, altering his footwork and honing his serve and volley -- to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.