Rafael Nadal’s String Theory
New technology has vastly changed the game of tennis over the past 25 years. While initially it was developments in racquet technology which shaped the advances in players’ abilities, racquet technology reached a virtual plateau in the early 2000’s. Of late, the choice of strings and string tension brings a new dimension to the game, giving each player distinct advantages and disadvantages. Let’s review the impact which Rafael Nadal’s racquet and string choices have on his game.
Torque and Topspin
As many tennis fans know, Nadal plays with the Babolat Aeropro Drive GT racquet. The racquet, which is very popular with recreational players, has an oversize head, small handle and wide rounded throat. These are all optimum qualities which aid Nadal in creating as much torque and thus topspin as possible as he goes through the motion of striking the ball.
The rounded throat’s aerodynamic ability definitely boosts Nadal whipping forehand, while the oversize head means he has greater margin for error when striking the ball and is able to generate unrivaled levels of topspin.
These same characteristics however make the ball slightly more difficult to control and decrease the player’s feel, particularly when attempting to volley at the net or slicing the ball. This fits with Nadal’s game as he quite obviously is generally rather disinclined to do either with great frequency. On the other hand one might say Rafa’s natural feel for the ball allows him to play with a racquet which minimizes the qualities of feel and control.
Racquet Head Speed
The racquet is also stiff enough to allow Rafa to produce significant power on the ball. While Rafa previously used a very lightweight iteration of the racquet to allow for maximum racquet head speed – and thus again power and topspin – he added some weight to the top of the racquet in the 2011-2012 offseason to gain a bit more power on his serve.
This is thought to have decreased the maximum racquet head speed he can achieve – causing his power and topspin to diminish very slightly and to have been detrimental to the maneuverability of the racquet too. But as we all know, the level of topspin Rafa produces is greater than any other player is capable of producing, and he is capable of hitting balls at the most extreme angles known in the game.
As a result, sacrificing a marginal percentage of racquet head speed and maneuverability will have practically no effect on his game, while an increase in speed and pop on his first serve, which doesn’t quite rival Federer and Djokovic’s, is an immense gain. It could spell trouble for his opponents particularly in the 2013 hard and grass courts seasons, most of which Nadal missed in 2012.
Rafa’s racquet has a very open string configuration with 16m/19c. (16 strings in the main and 19 strings in the cross.) This allows for a power and topspin, but sacrifices some control.
Perhaps of greater value to Nadal are the strings in his racquet. Before 2010, Rafael had been playing with Babolat Duralast 15L strings for some 12 years. His Uncle Toni however thought that a change in strings could benefit his nephew, especially in the long run as Toni foresaw that Rafa would not be able to generate the same torque, topspin and speed as he got older. He would need strings which could do some of the work for him. As a result he started playing with a different type of string in 2010 which is smoother, generates more spin and doesn’t sacrifice control.
Rafa strings his racquets at 55 pounds, which is looser than Novak Djokovic’s 59-61 pounds and tighter than Roger Federer’s 46-49 pounds. While Federer gains a lot of power by stringing looser (he is probably able to do so as his ability to control and feel the ball is famously excellent), Djokovic retains control by stringing his racquet tighter. It must be said that the newer tennis products are excellent for improving power and topspin while not forcing players to give up control.
Nadal’s string tension lies somewhere in the middle, which is indicative of the fact that his racquet design, the strings he uses, and his technique allow him enough power and topspin to not have to cede control. Also, he has a good enough natural feel for the ball to allow him to not string his racquet super tight.
It is clear that Rafael Nadal’s equipment is all picked by design with every aspect of the racquet, strings and string tension carefully considered to contribute to making a great tennis player’s game even better.
Aimee Schroeder is a regular contributor to shrewdtennis.com.