New serve, new Nadal – Aus Open may be start of unexpected hard-court assault

Rafael Nadal is in irresistible form at the Australian Open and the Spaniard will take some stopping in Melbourne.

Rafael Nadal winning titles on hard-courts looked to be a thing of the past but, after a different run to the Australian Open final, it seems to be the future.

With a remodelled serve in his armoury, Nadal moved into a fifth decider at Melbourne Park after a 6-2 6-4 6-0 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas on Thursday.

Highlights – Stefanos Tsitsipas vs Rafael Nadal

A 17-time grand slam champion, the Spanish star is setting new marks for himself on hard-courts, and much of that comes down to his serve. In comparison to last year’s Australian Open, Nadal is firing more aces – and double faults – and winning a far greater percentage of points on his first serve.

As expected, he is getting broken less and can now shorten points, which could potentially extend his memorable career.

Nadal was close to flawless against Tsitsipas and has now gone 66 consecutive games without being broken, going back to the opening round. It is sure to put him truly in contention in Melbourne and New York, having won just two of the 13 hard-court majors he has played since the start of 2011.

This Australian Open marks just the second time – and first since the 2010 US Open – that Nadal has made a final at a major outside Roland Garros without dropping a set. He has also done it in just 12 hours, 11 minutes – the quickest he has reached the decider at any major aside from the French Open.

If not an ace or unreturnable, Nadal’s serve is setting up his forehand for the next shot, allowing him to dictate points early. Coming into the semi-finals, he had used the least energy of all four remaining men, as per Tennis Australia’s Game Insight Group (GIG), and almost half the amount of Tsitsipas. Perhaps the gruelling, tireless style that has surely impacted Nadal’s career on hard-courts is no more.

He hardly gave Tsitsipas a chance in the semi-final, although he set the tone early, an ace down the T allowing him to get out of a 15-30 hole in just the second game. He broke in the next. For the fifth consecutive match at this event, he won more than 80 per cent of points on his first serve.

Nadal has become tired of talking about his serve, saying any changes were “nothing drastic”, but pre-tournament he provided an insight into how he was staying motivated and, 17 majors later and aged 32, incredibly taking another step.

“You need to make yourself feel alive,” he said. “There are always things to improve. It’s true that I try to improve during all my career all the things. The serve was always a thing that I tried to improve, and I think I did. Maybe it was the time to try to make one more step, no? That’s what we are trying.

“I’m happy with it. I’m happy with the motivation to do something new. I’m happy with the fact that, if I am able to make that happen in a good way, that hopefully will give me the chance to help me in my game longer term. That’s all.”

This from a man who last year competed at just three hard-court tournaments and completed just one.

A new serve, a new Nadal and perhaps a hard-court assault most thought was well past him.

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