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Holds and Breaks: Exactly how difficult is it to face Rafael Nadal on clay?

Rafael Nadal with the 2018 French Open trophy
Rafael Nadal with the 2018 French Open trophy
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Modified 28 Jul 2020, 17:19 IST
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How do you win a tennis match? Well, you have to win more sets than your opponent. And who wins a set of tennis? It is the player who breaks his opponent more times. Or conversely, it is the player who holds his own serve more times.

Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification thanks to the practicality of the tennis tiebreak. But the fact still remains that tennis is a game of serving and returning, and tennis results are to a large extent a function of holding and breaking serve. If you are holding serve (or conversely breaking serve) more than your opponent, chances are that you will win.

In this series, we take an analytical look at various tennis phenomena through the statistical lens of holds and breaks. And here, we look at what many consider the toughest challenge in tennis – facing Rafael Nadal on clay.

Rafael Nadal - the indisputable King of Clay

It really is incredible just how dominant Rafael Nadal has been on the red dirt. He lifted his first claycourt Masters trophy at the age of 18, and won the first French Open he played just a few days after his 19th birthday.

At the time of writing, he holds 12 French Open titles, 59 claycourt titles and a winning percentage of 91.79% over 475 matches on the dirt. The next best single-surface winning percentage is Roger Federer’s distant 87.38% on grass.

Few players have ever been able to challenge Rafael Nadal on the dirt. Even fewer have managed to beat him. What has enabled Nadal to be this dominant on clay over such a long period of time? It is time to look at the numbers.

Note: Match stats are reliably available from 1991, so the numbers of players such as Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas and other earlier players have not been considered.

The numbers

Rafael Nadal has never been known to have a particularly big serve, or a particularly lethal return. But what he can achieve with both is incredible consistency.

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Nadal always maintains a very high first serve percentage, and very few double faults. On clay, he usually gets more time to get the forehand off the return of serve, and from that point on, his opponent is up against it.

He also gets an incredibly high number of returns in to get the rally started. And once the ball is in play, even if his opponent gets a shortish return of serve, finishing off the point against Rafael Nadal on dirt is easier said than done.

Holds

Clay is a surface that sees a lot of breaks in general. Relative to other surfaces, most players struggle to hold serve on clay. But when Rafael Nadal steps up to the line on the dirt, he holds serve 84.83% of times.

That is just 1% below his holding rate of 85.83% on all surfaces. That also puts him at No. 4 on the all-time list on this surface, behind three massive servers. Most strikingly, he is even marginally ahead of Roger Federer.

Career service games won on clay, where Rafael Nadal is a little behind the leader John Isner
Career service games won on clay, where Rafael Nadal is a little behind the leader John Isner

Now it is conceivable that lower rung players would just constantly be out-rallied against Nadal on clay, and that perhaps he would have a harder time holding against the best players in the world. Well, against top 10 players on clay, his hold percentage drops only slightly - to 80%.

To put that into context, it is the highest service games won percentage against top 10 players on clay, marginally ahead of Jim Courier - who won 79.90%.

Career service games won on clay against top 10 opposition, where Rafael Nadal is marginally ahead of Jim Courier
Career service games won on clay against top 10 opposition, where Rafael Nadal is marginally ahead of Jim Courier

It is quite evident that breaking Rafael Nadal on clay is an uphill task. Even for the top players in the world, Nadal seems to be the hardest player to break.

Breaks

We’ve established that Rafael Nadal does a great job of holding his serve on clay. But his return numbers on the surface are nothing short of ridiculous.

Nadal breaks his opponents 43.04% of the times. That’s just 7% shy of winning half his return games.

Predictably, this is the highest return games winning percentage on the dirt.

Career return games won on clay, where Rafael Nadal is a comfortable leader
Career return games won on clay, where Rafael Nadal is a comfortable leader

Are the best players in the world giving him a much tougher time? Well, he’s been breaking his top 10 opponents a still incredibly high 37.7% of return games.

tops this list too, well ahead of second placed Guillermo Coria - who won 32.75% of his claycourt return games against top 10 opposition.

Rafael Nadal heads the list of career return games won on clay against top 10 opposition
Rafael Nadal heads the list of career return games won on clay against top 10 opposition

Getting ready to play Rafael Nadal on clay? The odds are not in your favor. The above numbers clearly outline what an incredible challenge it is to play Nadal on clay.

The Spaniard is one of the, if not the, most adept at holding serve on clay. And he is far and away the best at breaking serve on clay.

That makes for a nearly unbeatable combination, which is thoroughly backed up by his claycourt records and titles throughout his career.

Published 28 Jul 2020, 17:19 IST
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