Rafael Nadal’s Return to Sender

After studying Nadal’s return positions in the last four Australian Opens and comparing them with the other men’s players who were in the Top 10 late last season, GIG determined that Nadal was four times more likely than others to stand very deep to return first serves and an astonishing 10 times more likely than the others when returning second serves.

Nadal’s return tactics are one more sign that the modern game is not as homogenized as its critics like to lament. The surprise is that his opponents, including some of the most effective servers in history, have not found a way to punish him more frequently for the ground he cedes.

“The style of play today and today’s conditions in the game allow him to get away with it,” said Paul Annacone, the Tennis Channel analyst and longtime coach.

Nadal’s retreat allows him more time to react to huge serves, like those delivered by Juan Martin del Potro in last year’s U.S. Open semifinal and by Kevin Anderson in the final. It also destroys much of the incentive for them to go for big second serves.

But Nadal’s court positioning also opens up angles of attack for his opponents’ wide serves and creates potential…

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