2010 U.S. Open: Rafael Nadal thrives with a new serve as he aims to conquer New York

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 12:01 AM

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. - It has become routine, if not expected, for the superstars of tennis to debut new outfits for the U.S. Open, which is played out on the sport's biggest stage, in the world's biggest media market.

Rafael Nadal has done that this year, much like Roger Federer, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova, unveiling a different ensemble, in fact, for day and night matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

But Nadal has also used the 2010 U.S. Open to unveil a new serve - far more potent than the perfectly adequate one that has helped him to eight major titles (five French Opens, two Wimbledons and one Australian Open) by age 24.

With his sights set on winning the lone major title to elude him (if not this year in New York, then soon), Nadal has reworked his game so it has more punch on Ashe's hard court, which many, Nadal included, believe is playing even faster than the other courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

The evolution begins with the serve, with the Spaniard now cracking aces upwards of 130 mph - a good 10 mph faster, if not more, than before.

Nadal has provided few details about where this extra power comes from, saying simply, "I change a little bit the grip." But it has been a key to his impressive results to date.

Not only has Nadal reached the quarterfinals without dropping a set, he has yet to lose his serve in four matches.

In Nadal's case, developing a powerful serve is critical given the punishment he exacts on his body, particularly his knees, as he thunders around the court retrieving ball after ball. Last year, all that pounding triggered a flare-up of tendinitis that prevented him from defending his 2008 Wimbledon title and limited his effectiveness at the U.S. Open, where he fell in the semifinals for a second consecutive year.

Cliff Drysdale, the 1965 U.S. Open finalist and an ESPN analyst, is among those who've noted the adjustments.

"He has changed the grip a little bit so it's not quite as far around as it was, so he can hit the ball a little flatter," Drysdale explained in an interview Wednesday. "He helps that by throwing the ball instead of over his head, he throws it more to the left side. [Nadal is left-handed.] That enables him to let the wrist go looser. Instead of coming around the west side of the ball, he's able to hit through the ball more, and that's what is generating the power."

In addition, Nadal has continued to flatten out his groundstrokes, using less topspin, for more effectiveness at Wimbledon and on hard courts.

With each round here, his performance has improved.

Nadal's 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over countryman Feliciano Lopez, which ended at roughly 1 a.m. Wednesday, was his most efficient match yet, lasting just 2 hours 8 minutes.

Despite a gusting wind, Nadal landed 63 percent of his first serves. When he made his first serve, he won the point 90 percent of the time. As a result, Nadal faced only four break points, fending off all of them. And his ground game was clean. He struck 30 winners and committed just 14 unforced errors to Lopez's 41 - a remarkably low number given the whipping wind.

"I think I am playing well," Nadal said afterward. "But I [am] not playing yet at my highest level. . . . To be in quarterfinal of the U.S. Open without [losing] a set and without [losing] a serve, two things must work very well: the concentration and the serve. Without these two things, you gonna lose, for sure, the serve, no?"

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