But in order to achieve his recent world No. 1 ranking, in addition to taking his first Wimbledon and the gold in Beijing, the clay master elevated his game to a level that made him a threat on all surfaces.
Here are seven major adjustments Rafael Nadal made to his hard-court game in the past year that have made him the man to beat not only on clay, but also the hard courts of the U.S. Open.
Play Close to the Baseline
Clay courts favor baseliners, players who position themselves well behind the baseline and grind their opponent into an eventual error with high-bouncing topspin returns.
But in taking his game to the less-forgiving hard courts, where the truer-surface absorbs less speed from the ball, Nadal positions himself closer to the baseline to play low, aggressive tennis. This also puts him in a good position to rush the net when possible and win the point as quickly as possible.
Flatten Your Returns
Nadal's topspin on clay is outrageous, resulting in bounces that go the opposite direction his opponent might be expecting. But on hard courts you want a lower, faster shot that will put the ball out of play before your opponent has a chance to return it. Nadal reduces his spin, aiming instead for the top of the net using his power to send his shots past his opponents.
Nadal at times can play a painfully defensive game. The fast speed of hard courts, however, promotes a more aggressive game. Going into the hard-court season, Nadal steps up his offense, rushing the net more frequently, changing up his returns to alter the pace and constantly looking for weaknesses in his opponent's game that he can work to his advantage.
Shorten the Point
In addition to Nadal's blazing two-handed backhand, he also has a deceptive one-handed backhand slice. While returnable on hard courts due to the high bounce, this allows him time to approach the net and prepare for a winning volley.
Take Care of Your Knees
They're called hard courts for a reason. They're tough on the joints. Nadal has suffered from knee injuries in the past, thus the white tape below his knees as preparation for every tournament. Although not currently injured, this constant pre-game ritual ensures the health of his knees to go the distance of the match and the season.
It's also very important to stretch thoroughly before and after play. Hard courts place a good deal of strain on the body. Limbering up your muscles and tendons help prepare your body for quick movements and change of direction that could otherwise result in injury.
Ace Your First Serve
In the past, Nadal's first serve has been relatively slow (99-111 m.p.h.) with a predictable pattern. But over the years the top speed of his first serve has increased an average of three m.p.h. per season. And his placement has improved as well. In order to take his game the No. 1 level, he is constantly striving to improve his serve.
On hard courts, your first serve is your best weapon for securing the win. Invest the time to increase the speed and accuracy of your first serve and the results will pay off in certain victories.
Increase Your Speed and Stamina
As evidenced by his recent marathon, five-set win over Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Nadal is prepared to go the distance to win the match. Off-season, holidays and Sundays, Nadal is always training to improve his overall speed and strength. These efforts have made him one of the best physical specimens for strength in pro tennis.
Also keep in mind that summer conditions in North America, where the hard court is the most predominant court surface, can be brutal. Preparation is the key to enduring these conditions and win the match that you otherwise might lose due to the heat exhaustion.