How can one actually beat Nadal on his beloved Clay?
Nadal won his 17th Grand Slam title and his 11th French Open yesterday by defeating Austria's Dominic Thiem in the final. This was his 86th match win at his beloved French Open in a span of 14 Years and he has lost only 2 matches. A magical Soderling and an inform Djokovic are the only players to beat Nadal who was definitely not in his peak when he lost. So what is it that makes it so difficult to beat Nadal on clay specially at the French Open and how can one realistically beat him or at least get close?
The reasons for Nadal's dominance on clay are many. His huge lasso whip forehand which makes the ball bounce higher above the opponent's shoulder, his incredible movement on court, his ability to create short angles that force opponents to move out of the sidelines, his intensity and grunts, his anticipation and his touch at the net and most importantly his mental strength cause the opponent to surrender in the best of 5 set matches at Roland Garros. We can put it like this: One has to have his best day on court and everything needs to be right to beat Nadal whereas only one small thing may be a slight rain delay or a missed shot or a second serve is enough for Nadal to make his way back in a match where he is not playing well. That's how hard it is to actually beat him on clay. This year's tournament did show that even a 10 time champion can be nervous and feel the pressure. Nadal missed a lot of shots in the first set in most of his matches. He was also serving rather poorly throughout. But he stayed there and made sure that he didn't miss on the important points. He increased his intensity and played percentage shots basically asking his opponent to do something special. And once he got out of that situation, the fans could see him moving faster on court, his grunts got louder and his aggression increased as well.
Having said that, it is still possible to beat Nadal at the French Open. The first thing to analyze is how have the players been able to beat him even though it has only been done twice. With Djokovic, things are different as he has tremendous defence himself as well as the physical endurance similar to Nadal. So that might not be the tactic to use as Nadal is much better at it than anyone else. But if we analyze the Soderling match from 2009, it actually gives us some insight as to what is required to beat Nadal. The first thing is to be aggressive enough to stretch Nadal on the court and serve big to have control. But what is much more important is to believe that one can actually beat him. His aura of invincibility is such that even when players are up a set and a break, they still aren't sure about their chances in the match. Tactically speaking, Nadal likes to use his favorite inside-out forehand as much as possible and his whole game is built to somehow get to that position in a rally. Most of the players have a relatively weaker backhand that their forehand and this gives Nadal the opportunity to attack that shot and patiently wait for a weak reply. Once Nadal gets it, he can dictate the play and finish the point. The fact that Djokovic, Soderling
and Wawrinka have a solid backhand and specifically a solid backhand down the line shot, it has neutralized that pattern of play from Nadal and hence these guys have been able to cause him some concerns. This shot can open up the court for the opponents and make Nadal try something different. Then comes the ability to get to the net and finish the point whenever possible. Nadal's return of serve is impeccable and on clay, his spin on the ball causes it to bounce right on the baseline which makes it hard for opponents to control it. So taking it on the full and attempting a smash might seem to be a good option. But the most important thing is to mentally stay in the match till the last point is played, an art that Nadal has mastered like no one else. He can and he has come back from behind in a lot of matches because of his composure and his will to win. To win a match on the biggest court in the world over 5 sets against Nadal, the will to win and the belief are the key and only then can one's game get him through the match.