Photo Study of Rafael Nadal's Forehand

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Grip, Backswing, and Stance

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Rafael Nadal hits a ferociously heavy topspin forehand, which requires a very fast racquet head brushing sharply up the back of the ball. Nadal's forehand grip, between Semi-Western and full Western, encourages topspin, because it makes getting the ball over the net difficult without a sharp upward swing; it also makes hitting topspin easier on high balls. Nadal's grip increases the downward tilt of the stringbed on the backswing; his strings will turn toward a vertical plane as he swings forward. Rafael's stance on this forehand, between semi-open and fully open, will add considerable rotational energy to his swing while still allowing some forward, linear drive from his legs.

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Early Swing

Rafael Nadal's Forehand Early Swing
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Early in Nadal's swing, the twist in his shirt shows how much his upper body is uncoiling. His racquet's position below the ball will allow him to brush upward to create topspin, and his legs are already lifting him off the ground with the upward thrust that they are contributing to that topspin. Although his whole body is turning toward the net, Rafael is doing a great job of keeping his head locked onto the ball; one of the hazards of using the more open stances is the tendency to turn the head away from the ball before contact. Rafa's racquet is still laid back behind his forearm; its forward acceleration from this position through the remaining distance to the ball will add considerable power.

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Just Before Contact

Rafael Nadal's Forehand Just Before Contact
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An instant before meeting the ball, Nadal's racquet is still six inches or so below the ball, an indication of how quickly his racquet is rising. The layback of Rafa's racquet we saw in the previous photo is now almost gone as the racquet is accelerating forward. The asymmetrical strain in Rafael's face may be a consequence of the difficulty of keeping his head locked onto the ball despite the power of his forward rotation.

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Point of Contact

Rafael Nadal's Forehand Point of Contact
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At contact, the downward tilt of Nadal's stringbed we saw on the backswing has resolved into a perfectly vertical racquet face. With a 3/4 Western grip like Rafa's, this is a nice height to meet the ball, and he has it just the right distance from his body.

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Just After Contact

Rafael Nadal's Forehand Just After Contact
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An instant after meeting the ball, Nadal's racquet has risen as far as the ball has traveled forward, another indication of the heaviness of his topspin. Rafa uses his topspin both to allow powerful drives to land in and to make higher shots kick up to a height his opponents find uncomfortable.

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Most Common Follow-Through

Rafael Nadal's Most Common Forehand Follow-Through
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This is the most common of Nadal's follow-throughs, just slightly to the other side of his head. Impressively, Rafa still has his head locked onto his point of contact. Nadal's center of gravity is usually over his back foot as here; he hits most forehands off his back foot.

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Extreme Same-Side Follow-Through

Rafael Nadal's Extreme Same-Side Forehand Follow-Through
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This is Nadal's most extreme, same-side follow-through, usually following either a topspin lob or an inside-out forehand. Rafa's racquet often also ends up in nearly this position after the follow-through in the previous photo, as he brings the racquet back around his head.

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Wrapped-Around Follow-Through

Rafael Nadal's Wrapped-Around Forehand Follow-Through
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Rafa usually finishes with this more wrapped around follow-through when he has driven through the ball more than usual and hit somewhat less topspin. This is almost certainly the least stressful follow-through for his shoulder.

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Low Ball Square Stance

Rafael Nadal's Forehand Low Ball Square Stance
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Smart opponents try to make Nadal hit low balls with his forehand because they're more difficult for his 3/4 Western grip and the lower a ball is, the less room Rafa has to come up from underneath it to produce topspin. Rafa does a good job here of bending his knees to get down with the ball, and it's no coincidence that he's using a square stance instead of the semi-open or open stance we see more often. With a square stance, it's easier to get down to a low ball and much easier to step forward just before you hit, which helps you meet the ball before it has dropped even lower.​

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Stretched Defensive Forehand

Rafael Nadal's Forehand Stretched Defensive Forehand
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Nadal is one of the quickest players ever, and it's not easy to put a ball far enough away from him that he can't hit topspin on it. This is one Rafa just barely got to and was forced to slice or lob defensively. If Nadal had been one step less stretched, he probably could have hit an aggressive topspin reply and made one of his incredible conversions from defense to offense.