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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rafael Nadal

"The best thing that happened to (Rafa) was bringing Carlos Moya on board," ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said today.

Photo credit: Stephen White/CameraSport

Remnants of the Roland Garros wreckage Rafael Nadal dispensed build anticipation ahead of his Wimbledon return.

Nadal not only made history capturing an unprecedented 10th Roland Garros crown, he also shattered the biggest myth in tennis history, said former world No. 4 Brad Gilbert.

TN Q&A: James Blake

In a conference call with the media today to promote ESPN’s first ball to last Wimbledon coverage that starts on Monday at 7 a.m., Gilbert said the 31-year-old Spaniard's Roland Garros rampage reinforces the fact Nadal has been wrongly typecast as a defensive grinder when in fact he’s really an offensive powerhouse.

“The biggest misconception in the history of the world is about Rafa. He has never been a defensive player for one second,” the ESPN analyst said. “He’s an offensive machine, who’s willing to play defense. But the basis of his game is relentless offense. Even if he’s eight feet behind the baseline, he’s relentless on offense that’s willing to play defense. And Fed is an unbelievable all-arounder.”

The renaissance of Australian Open champion Roger Federer and Roland Garros ruler Nadal—and the fact reigning champion Andy Murray and fourth-ranked Novak Djokovic have combined to claim the last four Wimbledon championships—leads Gilbert to one conclusion: One of the Big Four will raise the title on Centre Court.

“I cannot see anybody outside beating three of those guys to win it,” Gilbert said. “Somebody having an amazing run and beating three of those guys. Let’s say Cilic having to beat three of guys or somebody ranked 15. I just think that’s the most difficult thing.”

Lleyton Hewitt, who swept David Nalbandian in the 2002 final, is the last man not named Federer, Nadal, Murray or Djokovic to win The Championships. Gilbert believes there’s a 90 percent chance the Big Four’s reign continues.

“So if there is some help in the draw, a couple of (top) guys happen to lose, maybe there’s a possibility (of a surprise champion),” Gilbert said. “But you’re probably in the 90 percentile minimum of one of those four guys winning.”

Delivering La Decima with dominance, Nadal dropped just 35 games in seven matches.

The question is: How will Nadal transition to the SW19 lawn without a grass-court tune-up match in two years?

Nadal, who has not played Wimbledon since 2015, hasn't been past the round of 16 in six years, including suffering losses to No. 102 Dustin Brown in 2015, to No. 144 Nick Kyrgios in 2014 and to 135th-ranked qualifier Steve Darcis in 2013.

"I think his game plays a lot better when the conditions are warmer and the ball bounces higher for him I think his game is more effective," Gilbert told Tennis Now. "And I think the way he’s serving should bode well for his game. It’s all about getting through that first week to put yourself in position for that second week."

Former world No. 1 Chrissie Evert says aggressive court positioning is a sign of Nadal's considerable confidence. Despite the fact he hasn't played since demolishing Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final, Evert expects an exuberant Rafa to make a second-week run at Wimbledon.

"I think with Rafa the big difference is confidence,” Evert told Tennis Now. "He’s stepping in, moving in. When he wasn’t confident, he was six to ten feet behind the baseline and just counter-punching and retrieving. I feel he’s so confident now and that’s reflective in how aggressive he is—he’s playing closer to the baseline—but he’s coming into the net a lot more.

"That, to me, shows confidence when a baseliner starts coming in a free way and looks so natural up there. He’s moving in, he’s volleying and he’s a lot more confidence. He’s gonna be really psyched, I think, to play Wimbledon. If it’s a good grass court, if it’s playing as a good grass court does, I think he’s going to feel very comfortable."

Gilbert, who coached Andre Agassi, Andy Rodddick and Andy Murray, asserts Nadal's Roland Garros performance was as powerful as he's ever delivered and attributes Rafa’s resurgence to three key factors:

1. Authoritative serving.

2. Dictating play with fierce first-strike forehands.

3. A fresh perspective courtesy of coach Carlos Moya, who joined Nadal’s team in December.

“For Rafa, the last few years, the biggest thing is getting through the first week,” Gilbert said. “I’ve never see him look better personally (than he did) at the French and this entire clay-court season. I think the serve is as good as it looked, the forehand is back to being devastating.

“And I said it in December and I’ll say it again: I think the best thing that happened to him was bringing Carlos Moya on board. I think that totally reinvigorated him and has given him a different perspective. He looks a lot happier on the court. It’s all about getting through the first week. If he can get through that first week, then I think he can get a lot of confidence going into the second week. “

Moya, who rode his own twisting topspin forehand to the world No. 1 ranking and Roland Garros championship, has helped Nadal reassert his menacing forehand as one of the sport’s biggest weapons, Tennis Channel analyst James Blake told Tennis Now.

“I think Moya has gotten Rafa to hit the ball a little harder and be sure to start points with his forehand more often,” Blake told Tennis Now. “His forehand is such a weapon and Carlos was so good at protecting his backhand that he has passed that along to Rafa.

"2017 Rafa to me is a more complete player than I played at the 2005 US Open. Back then, I felt like he was the best clay courter adapting his game slightly for hard courts. Now I think he has made it so he can play his best on all surfaces. He has learned to be much more aggressive and finishes more points at the net as well.


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