Rafael Nadal kept Milos Raonic in check on Wednesday, earning himself a place in the semi-finals by beating the Canadian in straight sets (6-4 7-6 6-4). The Majorcan's exploits thus far in Melbourne have showcased some key improvements to his game. We take a look at the secrets to his success.
Australian Open 2017 - Hard work and mental strength are the secrets to Nadal's form
It is virtually impossible to save six set points against an opponent as hard-working and powerful as Milos Raonic − the current world No.3 and regular firer of 140mph cannonballs − by simply being an excellent baseline player. It is also virtually impossible to qualify for your 24th Grand Slam semi-final − thanks to a straight-sets victory over the aforementioned Canadian (6-4 7-6 6-4), in your first big competition after three months off due to injury − by relying on your topspin forehand alone, no matter how "whippy" it might be. In Melbourne, Rafael Nadal is showing that even when he was away from competition, he was still working hard and improving. He is currently reaping the benefits of his fully-recovered physique, which has clearly changed his outlook and boosted his confidence, and the tweaks he has made to his game.
Milos Raonic: "[on the return], he did something a little bit different than he normally does"
The Rafa of 2017 is not a completely different player, but he is now even better at those aspects of the game that make all the difference at such a high level of competition. "He did something a little bit different than he normally does," confirmed Milos Raonic after their encounter on Wednesday. "He played better than I did. You could see he was trying to do something [on the return]. It would be good for a few moments, it also would create a few more mistakes for him. But I don't think that was a big change necessarily. When he was able to get ahead, when he was able to get comfortable, he was playing better." The stats say it all: against Milos Raonic, Rafael Nadal recorded an extremely good rate of return (70% inside the court).
Rafael Nadal's 2nd serve return position. Look at this. Inside the court today!— BreakPointBR (@BreakPointBR) 25 janvier 2017
Posicionamento do Nadal no 2º saque hoje: dentro da quadra! pic.twitter.com/WYpRBfb0PL
Gaël Monfils: "I was surprised at how well he countered on his backhand"
But that is only part of the story. As the 2017 season hits full speed, Rafa's backhand is proving particularly devastating. In the quarter-finals on Wednesday, the world No.3 bore the brunt of it, with the Majorcan notching up 13 winning backhands compared with 0 by Raonic. In the previous round, Gaël Monfils also felt it. "I was surprised at how well he countered on his backhand," the Frenchman reported. "Even better than on his forehand. When he was playing against me, he managed to redirect the ball better when it was coming fast to his backhand. He played some really great returns on that side. And, since his forehand's always good..."
Read more: Australian Open 2017 - "Rafa" on the rise
The nine-time French Open champion's service has also impressed since the start of the Australian Open. Against Milos Raonic, 72% of his serves went in first time and he boasted 83% winners off his first serve: dazzling statistics for a player whose serve is not his weapon of choice. Rafa is not and will never be known for his aces or winning serves, but his consistency is now astonishing and his service has unsettled many a player during this Australian Open. "Well, he's left-handed," analysed Gaël Monfils, "So he slices a lot. That kind of shot often comes back towards your body." The world No.6 described the effect that such a serve has on the receiver. "Personally, I have trouble returning them because Rafa likes to serve to my forehand. So I start to anticipate my forehand…and that's when he serves to my backhand!"
Toni Nadal: "Where he's improved the most, I think, is in his mind"
His eagle-eye for spotting the right moment to pounce and his ability to vary his target zone are the main secrets to the Majorcan's serve. Monfils divulged another key aspect, "He gets a lot of first serves in, too. So, yes, they might not be as powerful as others, but since he gets a lot of first serves in, he puts a lot of pressure on the returner because they know that as soon as they return a bit short, he'll move to the forehand and immediately take control of the game."
As usual, Rafael Nadal has spent hours tweaking his technique and practising hard ahead of this Australian Open. But, as his uncle and long-term coach says, that is not everything. "Where he's improved the most, I think, is in his mind," confided a smiling Tío Toni, "He's much better, much more resistant, more aggressive, especially on set points." No, hard work is not everything, even for Rafael Nadal. Not everything, but it still goes a long way. As if to prove the point, on his way back to the changing rooms of Rod Laver Arena, Toni Nadal could not resist adding, "Against Milos Raonic, his cross-court forehand was not so good. We'll have to do something about that."