'Rafael Nadal Is the Leonardo da Vinci of Tennis'

It’s usually Roger Federer who gets compared to intellectual heroes, but a remark by John McEnroe rightly appreciated that Nadal's best, most underrated weapon is his brain.

AP / Charles Krupa

Last night in New York, a former U.S. Open tennis champion dismantled an opponent 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 in the quarterfinals of this year’s event. It was yet another display of the player’s unparalleled dominance, and as the victor celebrated, TV commentator and retired tennis legend John McEnroe remarked, “What we’re seeing here, this guy is the Leonardo da Vinci—the Albert Einstein—of tennis.”

The Leonardo da Vinci of tennis. If you haven’t followed the U.S. Open, you’d be forgiven for thinking McEnroe was talking about Roger Federer. One of the most graceful, visually dazzling athletes in contemporary history, he’s the obvious choice for comparisons to the famous "Mona Lisa" painter. In 2008, The Times columnist Simon Barnes even wrote that “It is becoming increasingly apparent that Roger Federer was Leonardo da Vinci in a previous life,” in an article titled “Federer the genius, an artist with a racket for a brush.” In fact, when tennis writers invoke the name of any intellectual hero, it’s often in the context of describing Federer. Over the years, he’s been compared to dancers (“McEnroe compared the Swiss to the former Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov…”), musical geniuses (Federer’s style of play compared to the rest of the ATP players’ in 2006 was “like trying to whistle Mozart during a Metallica concert,” according to David Foster Wallace), holy figures (“Roger Federer’s aura of infallibility…” “…a sly dig at Federer's saintly image…”), and literary icons celebrated for their poise and elegance (like The Great Gatsby’s Jay Gatsby).

But last night, McEnroe was talking about the other, more rugged half of the sport’s most famous modern rivalry: Rafael Nadal. Nadal had just beaten Tommy Robredo, the Spaniard who had dismissed Federer in straight sets the round before.

Unlike Federer, Nadal has more frequently conjured up images of sweaty, fast-and-loose iconoclasm and brute force among sports journalists. In the years since his inaugural French Open victory in 2005, and most noticeably in the first few years after, he drew comparisons to pirates, cavemen, bulldogs, bulls, bulls, more bulls, bulls in china shops, bulls in Federer’s china shop, and, um, “Apaches.”

So I wondered at first if McEnroe had somehow forgotten which player he’d just watched, or if he’d maybe meant Leonardo the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (same headwrap!). But his offhand remark actually sheds light on a truth about Nadal that’s been somewhat underappreciated until recently: He may not be the magical athlete-artist Federer is (or—gulp—was), but he’s the Leonardo da Vinci of the sport in that he’s a whiz kid—a tennis brainiac.

Leonardo da Vinci, after all, wasn’t just an artist. Like Albert Einstein, he was a scientist, too—and an engineer. He spent years doodling up designs for machines that could make a human fly; five centuries later, when scientists built his imaginary contraptions out of modern materials, some of them actually flew. Da Vinci was a tinkerer with an intuitive comprehension of how things worked—and the same could be said of Nadal. Despite the mentions of Nadal’s “baseline bashing” and “extremely physical style of play,” it’s come to light in recent years that Nadal is unquestionably one of the best thinkers in the game of tennis, with a terrifyingly deft understanding of its science and strategy.

Last night, McEnroe instructed all the junior players watching the broadcast to closely observe Nadal’s play because, by subtly identifying his opponent’s movement patterns and adjusting and re-adjusting his service motion and returns accordingly, he was putting on what McEnroe called “a clinic” in shot placement. (The importance of being able to analyze and respond to an opponent’s play during a match shouldn’t be underestimated: Earlier this week, as The New York Times’ Geoff MacDonald noted, Federer made his earliest exit from a Grand Slam in 10 years because he failed to readjust his game plan against Tommy Robredo in the fourth round.)

Gilbert and McEnroe also made mention last night of a 2011 New York Times video feature that delved into the physics of why Rafael Nadal’s lethal lefty forehand—sometimes affectionately known as the “fearhand”—causes so much trouble for his opponents.

The answer? Topspin. Nadal’s extreme grip on the racquet results in a rate of topspin twice what Andre Agassi’s and Pete Sampras’s were when they played. In layman’s terms, if you’re on the other side of the net when a tennis ball comes hurtling through the air spinning as quickly as a Rafael Nadal forehand shot spins, it will bounce in ways you did not expect a tennis ball to bounce, especially on clay—even if you’re used to playing guys who play like Agassi and Sampras. And your attempt to hit it back with control will likely fail. This isn’t just a quirk of Nadal’s game; rather, it’s a willful mastery of a strange, somewhat unnatural, and acutely effective technique.

Gilbert and McEnroe (and others) have also repeatedly called Nadal the “best problem-solver in the game.” This summer in particular, analysts like MacDonald have picked up on the small but hugely effective tweaks Nadal and his coach have made to get Nadal back to the top of the ATP tour:

The changes Nadal made to close the gap on Djokovic were subtle, ranging from the psychological to the technical to the tactical. … vary the serve more; go down the line more on both sides, but especially the backhand; do not rally with neutral balls, but hit out with aggression; play defense relentlessly. … Two years ago, Djokovic owned Nadal. Now, after overcoming an injury to his knee and a seven-month layoff, Nadal seems to have solved the riddle of his most troubling nemesis.

Nadal has been one of the shrewdest players in professional tennis for a while now, and these days, more fans and analysts have begun to publicly appreciate that—as illustrated by remarks like John McEnroe’s. Maybe da Vinci’s most famous achievements—his artistic ones—still make “the Leonardo da Vinci of tennis” a more suitable title for Nadal’s more graceful counterpart, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see Nadal’s success rightly attributed to both brains and brawn.