Rafael Nadal's winning strategy is not for everyone

PARIS -- By now, you get the picture. As Rafael Nadal prepares to return serve, he's so far back beyond the baseline that he's almost out of the camera shot. At times, perhaps even into a different area code.

But Nadal summons the strength to return hard and high, pushing his opponents back. By the time they connect with their second shot, Nadal has moved forward onto the baseline ready to attack.

It's a tactic Nadal has used more and more over the past year, mostly on clay and here at Roland Garros.

Call him a trendsetter. Look no further than Alexander Zverev, Gael Monfils, Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin del Potro and Rafa's opponent in the French Open final come Sunday, Dominic Thiem, as players who have followed suit.

But this isn't about trends. It's a winning strategy.

"If Nadal stands up in the court, in the traditional position around the baseline, then he has to deal with the normal power of the serve, which can create errors," Craig O'Shannessy, a strategist for Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the ATP Tour, told ESPN.com.

Being that far back, it's nearly impossible for Nadal to consistently return the ball deep into his opponent's court, but that hasn't affected him the way traditional tennis X's and O's would suggest.

Matter of fact, through March, Nadal hit more returns (31.8 percent) in the service box than anyone in the then-top 20.

It doesn't matter," O'Shannessy said. "He has the ability to hit it deep, but he's not. But what he does is, he gets so many in. He hardly ever misses."

At this year's French Open, Nadal has won 43 percent of the points on an opponent's first serve, more than anyone else. On second serve, when he stands closer to the baseline, he's won 57 percent, tied for 12th. Nadal is first in return games won, with 44 percent.

The key is the rate at which Nadal makes his way back to the baseline and into an attacking position.

"It really works for him," O'Shannessy said. "Nadal hits higher with spin, and he's got depth because the guy is strong.

For others, though, the strategy might not be so effective. Players such as Thiem (36 percent of first-serve return points won) and Monfils (40 percent) are fast enough to match Nadal's speed toward the baseline, but the less mobile players would be better off standing closer to the baseline on returns. Del Potro, who generally stands deep, won just 29 percent of points on his opponent's first serve this season, tied for 51st on tour. And you probably saw how that worked out for him Friday at the French Open. Del Potro failed to break Nadal, while Rafa broke him five times.

So far, no one seems to have figured out a way to combat Nadal's return strategy.

Yannick Noah, the last Frenchman to win a Grand Slam title, at Roland Garros in 1983, told CNN that perhaps a little trickery would teach these deep returners a lesson.

"I would serve underarm every time and hit only drop shots," Noah said. "And if he's at the net, I'd hit it at him. You have to try something."

While standing so deep effectively rules out the ace down the middle -- the No. 1 spot for aces in the men's game -- because the receiver has so much time to make the ground across the court, it does open up the wide angles for the servers, or so you'd think.

"If you are legitimate about winning the match against Rafa, you have to try something," O'Shannessy said. "I saw Novak [Djokovic] in Rome where he did a slow serve-and-volley out wide. It works great. With every single strategy in tennis, there are counterstrategies.

Mats Wilander, a three-time champion at Roland Garros, said players will continue to copy Nadal until someone shows how to conquer it.

"They're doing it because no one is serve and volleying enough," Wilander told ESPN.com. "I would do the same if I knew no one is going to serve and volley. It's not a bad idea, but I do think certain players shouldn't do it, like [Zverev].

"The point of returning is to not give the server such an obvious advantage.

Nadal seems to have that part down.