The Strand at the 2015 U.S. Open
This year, some of the pros had a chance to head out to the U.S. Open as many of you likely did as well. What most of you probably did not do, however, is attend the qualifying tournament and practice sessions the week before the main draw started. This year, as every other year, the USTA holds a qualifying tournament the week before and schedules practice sessions around the grounds for the top ranked players. The practice sessions are even scheduled on two of the best show courts: the Grandstand and Louis Armstrong Stadium. These practice sessions include all of the top plays such as Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.
The grounds during “qualifying week” are still fun and alive. Concessions are open and there is a definite buzz around the grounds due to the significant fan presence. The players are also more relaxed and likely to interact with the fans. Perhaps the best part, however, is that you are often sitting in the first row – so close to the players that you can hear them speaking with their coaches. In addition to being entertained, you will learn a ton seeing the players from close range. Finally, to top this all off, admission is free!
This year, we were lucky enough to see two of the best players of all time: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Check out this YouTube video of Federer’s practice session against David Goffin:
In many ways, the highlight of the day was Rafael Nadal, though. Perhaps because his game is so much more “manufactured,” it somehow seems easier to pull things out of his game that we can all apply in our own games.
In the following video, Nadal is at net practicing his volleys. Volleys are not the first thing you think of when Nadal comes to mind. Nevertheless, this is precisely why his volleys are great models. Since volleys do not come as naturally to him, he has to make sure his technique is spot-on. As you will see in the video, his split steps are precise and always occur when his hitting partner (Tommy Robredo) makes contact with his groundstroke. His contact point is in front of his body and his racket head is always above his wrist. He also generally does not swing, instead relying on his legs for the power on his volleys. As you can see, he ideally makes contact as he is pushing off his back leg.
In this other video, Nadal is rallying from the baseline. This video is excellent for a number of things. Take a look at how active his feet are between shots. He does not stop moving and is always on the balls of his feet. Nadal obviously hits a lot of open stance forehands, and this close-up video is great in that it makes it easy to see how he loads his weight on his outside leg while still rotating his upper body. Also, take note of how early he hits the ball. His contact point is always in front of his body.
Moving on to the serve, you will see Nadal shift his weight back as he begins the serve motion. From there you will see him bend his knees so he can explode upwards into the serve. For all you beginner and intermediate players out there, take a look at his tossing arm. Notice how the only moving part is his shoulder. The elbow and wrist are still. Also, check out how Nadal’s hitting arm is bent and forms a straight line with his shoulders. This is crucial for optimal power. Speaking of power, pay close attention to the way his hitting arm slows down before it goes behind his back. This allows his racket to stay in motion behind his back. Also, notice how his body and arm are extending upwards as he makes contact. In other words, he is not hitting down on the ball. Make a note of how is right arm tucks in toward his chest to get out of the hitting arm’s way, while also helping to maintain his balance. Also crucial for his balance is the way his left leg kicks back as he lands on his right leg after contact. Just like a pitcher in baseball, the kicking back leg allows Nadal to throw all of his energy into the serve without falling forward. Finally, take a look at how his eyes stay focused on the ball through contact. As with any shot, keeping your eyes fixed on the ball is simultaneously the easiest thing to do, but also the thing we most often fail to do well on our shots.
Last but not least, let’s take a look at Nadal’s returns. In this video, you will see how Nadal is in the air and about to land in his split step just as you hear Tommy Robredo make contact with the serve. This precise timing of the split step is just as crucial on the return of serve as it is on the volleys. Take note of how relatively short Nadal’s backswings are on the returns. Nadal’s forehand in particular is normally quite loopy, and yet he manages to make it incredibly compact on the return. This allows him to make consistent and clean contact with the ball out in front of his body.
Qualifying week for 2016 is set for August 23-26. Mark your calendars now and make sure you attend. Also, if you are interested, let us know as the date draws closer so you can join the Strand pros there next year. There is no doubt in my mind you will find it far more entertaining than the actual tournament.