Nadal serves up a timely treat for his uncle Toni

Arrival of long-time mentor allows Spaniard to get grip on hard-court game

With less than a week to go before the US Open, Rafael Nadal was concerned. His backhand had been "terrible", he had been making too many unforced errors on his forehand and his serve had been ineffective. Opponents were regularly driving their returns to his backhand as the Spaniard tried to run round the ball and avoid playing it on his weaker flank.

After only two matches at Flushing Meadows, the world No 1's game had been turned around. He had not lost a set or dropped his serve and was striking the ball with more confidence, especially on his backhand. Everything had changed with the arrival in America of his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, in the week before the tournament.

"Toni arrives and everything is under control," Nadal explained with a laugh after his second-round victory over Denis Istomin. "I started serving well one or two days before the competition, but in practice the week before it wasn't good.

"I changed the grip a little bit five or six days ago because I felt when I played against the wind I wasn't getting any free points. I tried to serve with a little bit more aggression. For the moment it's working really well so I'm going to try to keep playing like this. Serving like this gives me big confidence in my game."

Less than a fortnight later, Nadal became US Open champion and only the seventh man to win all four Grand Slam titles. In seven matches he dropped his serve only five times, a performance that only Andy Roddick has matched since such statistics were first compiled in 1991.

The extra power in his serve, helped by the change in grip, gave Nadal the confidence to serve with more variety and play with more aggression. His early successes on clay derived from his ability as a counter-puncher, but on other surfaces he has learned the need to attack more. Four of his last five Grand Slam titles – he has won nine in total – have been won on grass or hard courts.

Nevertheless, it was an extraordinary performance given both Nadal's hard-court form earlier in the summer – he lost to Andy Murray in Toronto and to Marcos Baghdatis in Cincinnati – and the conditions at the US Open. Many experts said the Mallorcan's heavily spun forehands, cracked with a huge arcing swing, would make it difficult for him to cope with the pace of the "unfluffy" Wilson balls off a surface that some consider to be quicker even than Wimbledon's.

Although Nadal agreed that his serve "probably made the big difference", he insisted after his victory that he had made no significant changes to his hard-court game, which he said was much as it had been when he won last year's Australian Open.

"Part of it is confidence," he said. "When you are playing well and your confidence is high, it seems like you've improved a lot, but there are moments when you're not playing that well, when you lose your confidence, you lose matches and it seems like you've forgotten how to play tennis. It's not like I've improved a lot since 2009. I think I've improved my tennis a little bit, but it's not a radical change."

Much of that confidence derives from his relationship with Toni, who has been his coach since he was four. When you watch their practice sessions, the respect and affection between nephew and uncle is clear.

Rafael, a tireless worker, plays and practises with unrelenting commitment. He said: "My goal all my life has been the same: to keep improving and make myself feel a better player next year than what I felt this year."

What does he see as his greatest strengths? "I think my mentality, my attitude on court has always been good. I am positive on court and I fight all the time. But that's not the only thing. I think I was able to listen all the time to my coach, to make adjustments and to be ready to change things in order to improve.

"If you're talking about my game, I think the best thing that I have is my intensity on court. When I am playing well, the intensity always is high. The rhythm is high. Sometimes you can hit easy winners, but I can hit winners after three or four shots by keeping a great rhythm all the time."

Nadal is already certain to finish the year as world No 1. Given that he has no titles to defend until next April, he is also likely to establish the biggest lead in the history of the world rankings. His current advantage of 4,880 points over Novak Djokovic, the world No 2, is only 310 short of the record, which Nadal himself established in May 2009, ahead of Roger Federer.

News
Jerry Seinfeld Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
peopleSitcom star urges men to be more supportive of women than ever
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
Sport
footballLouis van Gaal is watching a different Manchester United and Wenger can still spring a surprise
News
The spider makes its break for freedom
VIDEO
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot