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6 reasons why Rafael Nadal is so good on clay

Rafael Nadal has impressive claycourt prowess
Rafael Nadal has impressive claycourt prowess
Mihir Gawade
TOP CONTRIBUTOR
Modified 31 Jul 2020, 11:45 IST
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Rafael Nadal on clay is like a Grand Theft Auto game played with the 'Infinite Ammunition' cheat code activated. Many have compared the Spaniard exhibiting his prowess on the red dirt to Picasso painting a mural live, or Ennio Morricone composing a tune perfectly synonymous with the scene, or Jorge Lorenzo setting identical times lap after lap in an almost mechanical yet smooth fashion.

Rafael Nadal's 'dirty dozen' at Roland Garros, the marquee event of possibly tennis' most demanding surface, is perhaps the most dominant feat in all of sport. It certainly isn't something we are likely to see being repeated in our lifetimes.

And the Spaniard isn't even done yet. Most experts predict that the 'King of Clay' might easily add up to three more titles to his Parisian tally, and end up with as many as 15 Roland Garros trophies.

Rafael Nadal has won 91.79% career matches on clay
Rafael Nadal has won 91.79% career matches on clay

Andy Roddick once recalled how when the 19-year-old Rafael Nadal burst on to the Roland Garros scene in 2005, Roddick's trainer Doug Spreen immediately predicting that the Spaniard would "win eight of these things".

Roddick can't be faulted for thinking that his trainer got carried away at that time. But as it turned out, even the number 8 - which at the time was more than any individual had won at a single Slam - turned out to be an underestimation. Rafael Nadal has four more Roland Garros titles than Spreen predicted.

It is true that this is not the only instance we have seen of a player being dominant on a single surface. In the same era as Rafael Nadal, we have Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic too - who have won eight titles each at Wimbledon and Australian Open respectively.

But neither of those two legends have commanded the same aura of invincibility on their favorite surfaces as Rafael Nadal has on clay. That brings us to the question: what makes Rafael Nadal such a superhuman on clay?

Here's a look at six reasons to understand that.

#1 The characteristics of the surface

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Clay is different from the other tennis surfaces like grass and hardcourt
Clay is different from the other tennis surfaces like grass and hardcourt

A big reason why Rafael Nadal is so good on clay is, well, clay - the surface itself. This might seem like an attempt at a quip, but the unique characteristics of claycourts - which greatly differentiate it from grass and hardcourts - is a major reason why Rafael Nadal has dominated the surface the way he has.

Now what makes clay different? Well, it's slow and bouncy. Essentially, clay takes away the speed of the ball after it bounces on the surface. There is more to it than just making the play slow and dull of course, but that's a claycourt's defining feature.

The surface is also much less skiddy than grass or hard, which allows the ball to bounce high - thereby suiting Rafael Nadal's high topspin-based game.

One of the biggest problems Rafael Nadal has faced on grass and hardcourts throughout his career is the skiddy nature of these surfaces. There is much more skid on the ball on a grass and hard than there is on clay, as a result of which the ball tends to stay low. That in turn takes away precious time from the Spaniard to apply enough topspin.

Case in point: Rafael Nadal was seen complaining to his box about the extra skid on the ball during the Shanghai Masters final against Roger Federer in 2017.

On clay, however, the speed and bounce of the surface play right into Rafael Nadal's hands. They help him apply the perfect amount of topspin, which leaves his opponent in a spin (pun intended!).

Another element is the surface's tendency to render huge service bombs ineffective. Clay has never cared for big servers; historically, they have always struggled to find rhythm on the surface as their giant serves are neutralized to a great extent.

Returners tend to get a better look at the serve than on faster surfaces, and that helps Rafael Nadal's return game by leaps & bounds. The Spaniard has won a staggering 43.04% of all return games he has played on clay, which is a record on any surface.

In addition to that, when Rafael Nadal plays on the famed Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland Garros , he has acres of space behind the baseline.

A sky level of Court Philippe-Chatrier and the huge space behind the baseline it offers to a player like Rafael Nadal
A sky level of Court Philippe-Chatrier and the huge space behind the baseline it offers to a player like Rafael Nadal

Three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten had once compared Chatrier to the Maracana football stadium in Brazil. The court offers a staggering 32 feet run-off behind the baseline, allowing Rafael Nadal to roam around freely and track down practically everything.

The Spaniard has often acknowledged how a big court aids his game.

"It’s obvious that a big court helps a little bit more my game. For the opponent, is a little bit more difficult to attack, to see the clear winner." Rafael Nadal had said in 2017.

#2 Serve out wide + forehand combination

For much of Rafael Nadal's career, his supposedly below-par serve in comparison to his rivals has been considered his biggest weakness. Nadal has seldom had the luxury of a strong first serve that could get him out of jail when his ground game isn't working. The 19-time Slam champion usually has to grind out rallies to save break points.

But despite having a relatively weak serve for the most part of his career, Rafael Nadal has managed to use his lefty serve on the ad side (to a right-handed opponent's traditionally weaker side) to his advantage. And nowhere has he done that better than on his favorite red dirt; ask Roger Federer, and he will tell you just how much it sucks for the opponent.

The wide serve followed by the big forehand is Rafael Nadal
The wide serve followed by the big forehand is Rafael Nadal's favorite weapon on clay

The southpaw uses his serve to push the right-handed returner wide into his backhand corner, and force a weak return. That leaves almost the entire court open for Rafael Nadal to fire his biggest weapon - the forehand down the line.

If the opponent does recover from his compromised position before Nadal can get a look on his forehand, more often than not he makes the mistake of overrunning to the opposite corner in the anticipation of a forehand down the line. That in turn makes it easy for Nadal to go behind him and hit a crosscourt forehand.

An analysis of the King of Clay's 6-0 4-6 6-1 win over Novak Djokovic in last year's Rome Masters final shows just how effectively Nadal uses his favorite 1-2 punch.

79% of the times Rafael Nadal the first shot after the serve with his forehand. He even ran around his backhand frequently, taking advantage of a short return extracted from his wide serve, to hit a forehand.

Nadal also won an amazing 71% of the points where his first shot after the serve was a forehand, compared to 45% when the first shot was a backhand. The vicious "one-two punch" enabled him to win a lot of points before they matured into lengthy rallies.

Rafael Nadal's lethal serve +1 forehand combination ended the point in three shots or five shots a combined 63 per cent (19/30) of the time. In contrast, the Serb hit 71% (56/79) serve + 1 forehands for the match, winning just over half (52%) of them.

Rafael Nadal also uses the slice serve down the T to the right-handed returner's backhand on the deuce court a lot. However, this serve is not quite as effective as the serve out wide on the ad court, because of the court geometry. It is easier to establish a good court position in the rally by directing the backhand return to Nadal's deuce corner, forcing the Spaniard to hit a backhand as his +1 shot.

In recent years especially, Nadal's serve out wide + forehand combination has been a blessing, as his aging body cannot grind out as many points as it used to. The tactic helps Nadal win quicker points on serve and conserve his energy to stay fresher for the return games.

It surely helps that over 80% of the players on tour are right-handed.

#3 Persistence and point construction

In case anyone still thinks Rafael Nadal is just some deep sitting baseline retriever without a net-game, drop-shots or a slice, they might want to reconsider.

Point construction is one of Rafael Nadal's biggest assets. While not typically known for his tennis IQ as much as, say, Andy Murray, Nadal is still very smart at constructing points from start to finish.

Patient while constructing the rally, Nadal often appears to be just trying to run the opponent ragged with his heavy forehand. But the Spaniard is always thinking of his moves ahead of his opponent, ready to pounce at the best opportunity to finish the point.

Unlike other surfaces, it is almost impossible to finish a point on clay with a single swing of the racket. Players deploying the first-strike tennis strategy have always struggled on dirt; the surface demands astute decision-making, patience, persistence and endurance. And all of these things are defining features of Rafael Nadal's game.

The Spaniard's shot selection is designed to put you right where he wants, before he bludgeons that heavy forehand. If you are hitting confident backhands and staying in the rally without sending a short ball, he will ensure you're pushed back deep enough before launching a drop shot.

If the drop shot is good and you still manage to reach it, he'll be towering at the net to finish the point or outwit you in a net duel. If the drop shot is left too high, he will be on the baseline to hit a line-kissing passing shot off what you might have thought was a putaway forehand.

If you somehow manage to gain the upper hand in a rally and think you have him where you want, he will slice the ball crosscourt to get out of trouble. That will buy him enough time to get back in a good court position, while also completely changing the pace of the rally.

Point construction on clay doesn't really get much better than a typical Rafael Nadal rally.

Even if everything fails and Nadal is cornered in a seemingly hopeless position, there is always the heavy forehand that defies the laws of physics and somehow lands outside your reach, stealing away your dreams.

#4 Rafael Nadal's movement and court coverage

Rafael Nadal's biggest asset early on in his career was his supreme movement and court coverage.

His foot speed and court coverage rank among the best in the history of the sport. Players would often fire massive groundstrokes at bullet speed in an open corner, thinking they have earned a winner, only for Nadal to come sprinting out of nowhere and make an astonishing get.

By forcing his opponents to keep hitting one extra shot, the King of Clay elicits numerous errors out of them. And that often makes the difference for Nadal in his claycourt matches.

In his prime, the force of nature from Mallorca could cover all four corners of the court in a single rally and still manage to come out on top.

With time, Rafael Nadal's speed has considerably decreased. The recurring knee troubles and the back injury in 2014, coupled with the Spaniard's growing age, have resulted in his biggest weapon getting compromised.

But the King of Clay has made up for that by rushing to the net much more in recent times. He now pins the opponent in a deep and wide position and tries to finish the point early, which is still supremely effective on clay given his surface-specific strengths.

In any case, the Spaniard is still faster on foot than most players on tour, which gives him a considerable advantage even in his twilight years.

#5 Patterns, raw power and battering ram playing style

If there's one thing that has been a characteristic of Rafael Nadal's game throughout his career, irrespective of the surface, it's his obsession with patterns.

In fact, Nadal sometimes lets go of an opening and misses a chance to strike a winner into the open court, just because he is fixated with sticking to his rallying patterns. On social media, this has quite funnily come to be known as Nadal's 'Open Court atheism'.

But Nadal's patterns have contributed greatly to his success, and that is most evident on clay.

On clay, everything is about the forehand with Rafael Nadal
On clay, everything is about the forehand with Rafael Nadal

The most common play that Rafael Nadal likes to use in a match is something known as The Battering Ram. This may well be the single most important element that makes Nadal almost impossible to beat on his favorite surface.

The Spaniard positions himself in the middle of the court, thus keeping his opponent constantly guessing on the corner he is about to pick. He then stretches the play wide by pushing the right-handed opponent deep on his - often weaker - backhand side.

This opens up a plethora of options for the southpaw, as he now has the opponent's forehand corner wide open. And if the opponent does try to run the width of the court to cover it, Nadal can win the rally by simply going behind him. The opponent, leaning towards the wrong side, is often left totally wrong-footed and frozen.

How Rafael Nadal likes to run his play on clay
How Rafael Nadal likes to run his play on clay

If the player decides to turn on the heat during a rally and push Nadal wide on his backhand to prevent him from starting with his patterns, the King of Clay's raw strength comes into play. Nadal lets his bulging muscles do the talking by producing powerful groundstrokes even from way behind the baseline.

The opponent, not being able to keep up with the pace and strength in Nadal's shots, inevitably throws up a short ball. That gives Nadal the opportunity to make up the yards and start running his patterns again.

Rafael Nadal is widely considered to be the strongest player on tour in terms of raw strength. He can generate unimaginable power on his groundstrokes from positions extremely deep in the court; most other players would need sheer luck to just get a shot over the net from there.

That is what helps Rafael Nadal run his battering ram play to fruition. And that's also what other claycourters of his era, like David Ferrer and Pablo Carreno Busta, vividly lack.

As a side note, this is exactly why having a strong backhand is absolutely imperative for a right-handed player to challenge Rafael Nadal. It's not surprising that Novak Djokovic is the only player who has managed to have so much success against Nadal, even on clay.

#6 The European weather

Spaniards love the sun. And Rafael Nadal is no different.

The most important part of the clay season is played in Europe from April to June, in the warm European spring under the bright shining sun. The clay courts play harder and the ball bounces higher because of the hot conditions, which unsurprisingly plays right into Nadal's hands.

There are very few things Rafael Nadal loves more than a hot sunny day on clay
There are very few things Rafael Nadal loves more than a hot sunny day on clay

Historically, Rafael Nadal has struggled on clay in heavier and more humid conditions. The Spaniard inevitably starts dropping shorter groundstrokes, and extends the rallies without trusting his shots as much.

The best example of that is the French Open 2012 final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Rafael Nadal seemed to be in complete control and cruising towards what was then going to be his seventh title in Paris, as he raced to a two-set lead over the Serb. But as the conditions grew damp with signs of impending rain, Djokovic started imposing himself over the Spaniard; he won six straight games to take the third set and get an early break in the fourth.

Fortunately for Nadal, play was then suspended due to rain. On the following day, in sunnier conditions, Nadal broke back right away and eventually won the set 7-5 to overtake Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles.

Rafael Nadal has also struggled to recreate the same magic on clay whenever he plays in the South American claycourt tournaments in February. Although still very dominant, the Spaniard frequently seems off his usual rhythm - due to the heavier and more humid conditions there.

Published 29 Jul 2020, 15:42 IST
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