Mats' Musings: Nadal has completely transformed his game

Mats Wilander
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Seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander will be writing for Yahoo! Sports' tennis blog, Busted Racquet, throughout the U.S. Open.

Though there are many great stories here at the 2010 U.S. Open, the most interesting is how Rafael Nadal will play on the hard courts of New York.

He's improved his game tremendously in the past 12 months. I don't think I've seen anybody improve their game as much as he has this year. It's frightening to think that he wasn't already at his maximum potential, but he wasn't. After some losses to the big guns like Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic he decided to take a good look at his game. By design, he switched strings on his racket in order to put less spin on the ball. Before he was hitting with a lot of spin and the ball would be bouncing on the service line. This was great against Roger Federer because the ball would bounce really high to his backhand, making it seem like this strategy and technique was tailor-made to disrupt Roger. And it worked, because Roger hated it.

But Nadal eventually realized that he couldn't be playing professional tennis and be terrified every time he played a big guy who loved hitting those high balls at shoulder height. They stood in the middle of the court and banged them straight down and Nadal was shorter and shorter on the court as a result. So he changed the strings, put less spin on the ball and plays six or seven feet deeper on the court. His shots land three or four feet past the baseline, which is an amazing thing to do because his eye must have been so trained to see the trajectory of his ball. It's very hard to tell yourself to hit the ball differently because of this. He's taken away the big guy's advantage over him.

At the same time, Nadal did risk a big part of his game. Before when he would spin it, players would take 30 minutes to get used to it. It spun so much. That was a serious advantage over everyone who isn't 6-foot-5 and has a huge two-handed backhand. So now these smaller guys are in the matches because Nadal hits a more normal ball. It's a bit more powerful and a little quicker, but it's normal. It's easier to play with him now. The thing is, they still can't beat him.

It's a gutsy thing to do. He could have done it like Andy Roddick and try to hold on with a game that wasn't necessarily suited for him. Nadal would have been successful. He could have reached 11 majors that way, but he changed and has is taken it to another level.

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This brings Federer more into the picture though. Nadal can still loop it up high to the Federer backhand, but he can't play the same way he used to. He can't get into a rally and hit it up high and win the point like he used to.

Now that Federer has hired Paul Annacone he has decided he doesn't want to get into long rallies with the younger guys. He doesn't want to play with them because they're too good from the baseline. Federer could beat them, but he needed to have a more reliable game. So he changed his routine. He takes the ball earlier now and hits the top of the shot and tries to rush the net and end the point. Fed is taking chances and he's taking away the rhythm, which is the key to Nadal. He needs to take away his rhythm.

But does Federer have the guts to keep playing like that? If he changes his style he also brings the field in to all of his matches. Perhaps, but he knows that he has to play like that if he wants to beat Nadal and Andy Murray these days. It's a gut check for Federer. Or does he go back to his old ways?

To make the seimifinals I like Murray, Federer, Nadal and if Novak Djokovic can get by James Blake, I think he gets there as well. There are a few floaters who I find very dangerous. David Nalbandian can be that guy and he could give Nadal trouble in the quarters because he doesn't mind pace and doesn't mind the high ball. He doesn't really mind anything. Nalbandian is definitely a dark horse.

Mardy Fish is also dangerous and he can definitely take out Djokovic, much like Blake. But even if Djokovic does beat him and get to the final four, I doubt he could get through all that and then have enough juice to beat Federer.

Another interesting player is John Isner. He has a really good draw to get through to the quarters to play Murray. If he gets the dry, hot weather he needs to get his serve up, then he's a rough one. Nobody wants to play him at the moment.