What The Hell Did Rafael Nadal Do To This Ball?

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Allow me to remove my foot from my mouth: Rafael Nadal is still the King of Clay, fine. He claimed his 10th title at Monte Carlo last week, and looks set to take his 10th Barcelona Open title too, unless Andy Murray snaps out of his daze or Dominic Thiem manages the upset. Maybe his 10th French Open lies just a few weeks away. But for all his decade-plus of dominance, Nadal has never been known primarily as a net player, which is fine, because the surface doesn’t really call for it. Big, spinny groundstrokes and tireless legs will give you wins red dirt. Nadal made significant advances—his volleys were yucky when he first got on tour—but he’s still not especially enthusiastic to take the net, unless the situation calls for it.

Today, the Korean 20-year-old Chung Hyeon, who put up a respectable fight in the first set of their quarterfinal, provided one such situation, hitting a weak drop shot that Rafa decided to weakly drop right back. Chung then aimed a fireball at Nadal’s body, and it’s hard to describe what happened next. Nadal wiggled his racket in front of him. It was half-slap, half-self-defense. It’s hard to even tell which side of the racket made contact with the ball, and slow-motion clears up very little, which should tell you something about how quickly the ball was moving and how quickly he had to react. But somehow his (forehand? backhand? no-hand?) volley made it over the net, at an ideal angle, and nicked the sideline.


Outrageous shots can be clumped into a few vague categories. There are the shots technically simple enough that a a bad player could understand the mechanics, and roughly replicate it, albeit with lesser speed and spin. Then there are the shots where I understand the mechanics of the stroke but will never remotely approach the athleticism required to pull it off (here’s one, maybe the shot of the year). And then there are the shots where I can’t even grok the physics in the first place.

This is the last kind. This ball would’ve cracked my sternum, and my racket wouldn’t have hit anything but my own face.