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Why Nadal is Hurt, but Federer is Not

Roger Federer has won 14 Grand Slam titles, Rafael Nadal six. But Federer is not necessarily the better player. Take last years’ Wimbledon, where Rafael took down Roger in an epic five-set match. Federer has a lifetime record of 7-13 against Nadal.

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Though Regardless of the “who’s better” argument, Federer may be on track to win more Slams. Meanwhile, Nadal may be nearing end of a very successful, but very short career. Although these two players rule the tennis world, it’s the way they play the game that sets them apart.

Nadal is tough. He hits hard, trains hard and, as a result, wins. Like Nadal, Federer also wins, except Federer is rarely injured where as Nadal is often sidelined (he’s not defending his Wimbledon title because of a knee injury). But how does Federer succeed in staying healthy while Nadal fails?

At the carnival, a popular game is the “Hammer Bell.” Smash a hammer onto a plunger to try to send a metal dinger up to ring a bell. Huge muscular guys line up to take their best shot. They swing as hard as they can, yet the dinger only goes up halfway.

Then a scrawny guy steps up, barely able to lift the hammer, swings, and hits the plunger in exactly the right spot sending the dinger up to ring the bell. The moral of the story is, it’s not how hard you hit it, it’s where you hit it.

You might think this all sounds crazy, but think about it. If Federer perfectly places a shot where his opponent can’t get at it, he’s more likely to win the point. Federer has studied the science of tennis for years, and as a result has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success.

Allie Ritzenberg has been playing and studying the game of tennis all his life. At age 85, he was the Number 1 player in the world in his age class. Now 90, he’s Number 3. You don’t maintain a competitive game and world ranking at that age by brute strength. Ritzenberg studies the game; the physics of the racquet motion and ball striking. He’s not a scientist, but he understands that the laws of motion on the tennis court are controlled by finesse as much as power.

He says some of today’s players, including Nadal, may be overplaying their ability and as a result, may not last. “The way they’re going at it, with all the strokes that they’re using now, there’s a great tendency to break their arms,” he says. Ritzenberg compared the best tennis strokes with the moves of a ballerina, “It means that the strokes are smooth and beautiful. They’re not choppy and jerky.”

Ritzenberg, who is the author of “Capital Tennis: A Memoir”, also credits his tennis longevity to a strictly vegetarian diet and with playing mostly on clay versus harder-surface courts. And when it comes to conditioning, “easy does it”. Today’s players, he says, “do weight training, have sports psychiatrists, trainers, managers. It’s all a bit much.”

He cites players in the past, like Jack Kramer and Ken Rosewall, who were similar to Federer in their single dedication as a player and a student of the game. “Those players didn’t train six to eight hours a day, leave school early and play other sports,” Ritzenberg says.

In a sport known for its punishing routine, survival is the name of the game. Follow Federer’s lead: Eat a healthy diet and adapt a training regimen that is dedicated and intense without being abusive. By doing that, you can make tennis, or any sport, a lifelong passion rather than a short term burnout.