The Physics of Federer-Nadal

If you're a tennis fan, and a fan of Rafa Nadal in particular, the last seven months probably felt like the period in rock n' roll history in which Elvis was in the Army. 

If you're a tennis fan, and a fan of Rafa Nadal in particular, the last seven months probably felt like the period in rock n' roll history in which Elvis was in the Army. 


The past month, however, has seen Nadal successfully return from a left knee injury, an injury he is still nursing. In fact, Nadal's knee will get its toughest test so far tonight in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California with the resumption of one of the greatest tennis rivalries of all time: Federer-Nadal.

So what makes this rivalry so special? Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are both two of the most complete players in the game. Not only do both players have complete skill-sets that allow them to win at the highest level, they also possess the intangibles. In other words, they are both "intuitive physicists" who know how to combine their athletic abilities with smart patterns on the court. 

Consider, for instance, Nadal's topspin forehand, which is one of the most lethal weapons in tennis. The execution of this shot requires more than athletic ability. An intuitive understanding of the physics of the game is also required to set the shot up. Nadal wants to use this weapon as often as possible, so he has become an expert at constructing points. In other words, like a chess player, Nadal thinks three or four shots ahead during a rally. His selection of shots is designed to put himself in a position where he can start to dictate a point, transitioning from defense to offense and quickly pull the trigger on a devastating forehand winner.

This shot, the heaviest topspin forehand in the game, is generally placed wide and high to the backhand of a right-handed opponent, like Federer. The dizzying topspin doesn't give Federer a lot of options, often eating him up and causing him to mishit, or shank the ball. The average revolutions per minute of Rafa's forehand stroke is 3,200, and it has peaked at 5000 rpm. By point of comparison, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi hit topspin shots at around 1,800 rpm.

An understanding of physics not only helps players like Nadal and Federer win, it can also help fans better appreciate the game. 

In the video below, Dr. Ainissa Ramirez describes the forces and the materials that allow Nadal to hit a ball that rotates faster than a washing machine, or about 80 times from one end of the court to the other. 

Watch the video here:

Ainissa Ramirez (@blkgrlphd) is a science evangelist who is passionate about getting kids of all ages excited about science.  Before taking on this call, she was an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Yale University. Currently, she is writing a book on the science behind football with NYT bestselling author Allen St. John entitled Newton’s Football (Ballantine books). She is also the author of the new ebook Save our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists, in which she advocates on how to humanize the sciences and introduces them into everyday life.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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