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The master of clay

• Posted in Tennis • By JoeBaker

This time last year people were saying that Rafael Nadal’s career was nearing its end. The great Spaniard had not long before pulled out of the French Open and Wimbledon, and it looked like his weary body had finally had enough. The ongoing struggle for consistency was also obvious – Nadal looked finished.

How wrong we were. The man from Mallorca has now won his 10th French Open title, his 15th Grand Slam in all, in a season in which he also narrowly missed out in a classic Australian Open Final against his old nemesis, Roger Federer. He is the first man to win any of the Slam events 10 times, securing the 10th without dropping a single set, the culmination of one of his best clay court season during which he also won events at Madrid, Barcelona and Monte Carlo. Winning his very own ‘La Decima’ is an astonishing achievement that we may never see again.

It is all the more remarkable because of how difficult it is to play on clay, the most gruelling surface the players have to contend with. So why is it that Nadal is such a formidable force on the surface and without doubt the greatest clay court player of all time?

The forehand

The Rafael Nadal forehand is perhaps the most destructive shot in the history of tennis and it is particularly effective on clay. It has been a huge asset to him and one of the principle reasons behind his dominance on the surface. He is able to whip his forehand, hitting the ball with power and generating serious levels of topspin. Most players like to strike the ball at about waist height, yet because of this significant topspin, Nadal forces them to take the ball more around the shoulders - keeping them uncomfortable and off-balance. The heavy topspin ball bites into the dirt, giving it extra kick. With the ball travelling slower on clay, Nadal has enough time to move onto his stronger wing to unleash lethal cross-court shots or power winners down the line. It is also rare to see him not punish an opponent when given a short ball to attack. It is unlikely that we’ll ever see a more effective shot on clay.

The defence

A word commonly used to describe Nadal on clay is relentless. It perfectly defines the way he hustles along the baseline, repelling any attempted attack that comes his way. He makes an opponent work unbelievably hard for every point they get simply because of how many balls he can retrieve and return with interest. The length of points, and matches, are taken beyond what opponents would prefer to play. You’re always made to play that one extra shot. You also can’t simply out-power Nadal on clay because of the slower surface that gives players extra time to get into position. He slides on clay better than anyone else and forces opponents to either play it too safe or take a high-risk approach that often ends in failure, gifting the Spaniard the kinds of errors that he thrives on. There has never been a better defender on clay.

Consistency

This will sound obvious for someone who has won 10 French Opens but Nadal’s consistency during matches on clay is astounding. He rarely makes errors that give away free points; to beat him you have to leave everything on the court and play a near-perfect game, being as clinical and error free as possible. To say both are challenging demands would be an understatement. Nadal has a wonderful temperament with patience in abundance and can hit on and on. It’s very rare that he will have a bad day at the office on clay with a performance littered with errors. This is crucial because the surface makes it harder to hit winners, placing more of an importance on your opponent making mistakes.

Tactical genius

Being tactically astute is more important on clay than any other surface. And Nadal just happens to be a strategic genius on the red stuff. He has an expert knowledge and instinct of when to attack and when to defend. With longer points there is more of an emphasis on being able to intelligently construct and control points and no one in the sport thinks as well on the surface and executes better in crucial moments than Nadal. Like the other great champions of the game he can think his way through not just matches but the points themselves. He will always have a strategy for defeating his opponent and can change and adapt this during the match when necessary. Playing tennis on clay is like a game of chess – Nadal is very much the chess master.

Athleticism

The injuries Nadal has suffered during his career have been well documented but they should not mask the fact that he remains a remarkable athlete. The fact that he has been able to perform so well for so long on clay, a physically demanding surface that requires constant sliding and running from side to side, is testament to his athleticism. His court coverage and movement on clay is amazing, with the speed of his footwork enabling him to get to balls that would elude most players and extend points further. This also puts him in a position to hit more of the heavy topspin forehands than on other surfaces. And of course, everyone knows about the astonishing endurance Nadal has, allied with him being renowned as one of the hardest players working in the sport. 

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