Rafael Nadal is undoubtedly the greatest clay court player in tennis history.
No ifs, ands, or buts about it: what the Spaniard has done on the red dirt is simply unparalleled. No player, male or female, has accomplished what Nadal has on clay on any surface.
Throughout his professional career, Nadal has won a mind-boggling 93% of his clay-court matches. Nadal’s losses on clay over the last ten years have been aberrations of all aberrations – the Hayley’s Comet of tennis, if you will.
For just under a decade, he has faced the best of the best and has passed the test nearly every time. From 2005-2012, Nadal did not lose a single match at Monte Carlo. At the French Open, between 2005-2014, Nadal has lost once, and has only been pushed to a fifth set twice.
Nadal’s game is benefited by the clay more than any other player’s game is on any surface has been at any time in tennis history. But what makes Nadal so good on the surface?
It all starts with the forehand.
Contrary to popular belief, Rafael Nadal does not possess an extreme-western forehand, yet manages to generates an incredible amount of topspin. The stroke’s heavy whip is instead generated by the shape of his swing, and the amount of racket head speed he is able to create.
Nadal’s typically hits a reverse-forehand, meaning he finishes the swing on the same side of his body as it starts, as opposed taking the racket across his body and finishing over the opposite shoulder or arm.
This provides him a larger plane (or zone) to drive his racket up the ball, thereby allowing him to brush up the back of the ball with incredible racket head speed and force. Nadal wasn’t the first player to do this by any means, but he’s mastered uses it more frequently than anyone else. His racket head speed is a result of his strong technique and terrific coordination between body and racket.
To be sure, the topspin that Nadal generates from all of this is extremely beneficial on any surface. Basic physics tells us that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection, meaning that Nadal’s high arching, heavy topspin balls will have loads of height, then jump off the court with an angle to match the height from which it came. No other player in the world can match the bite and explosive nature of Nadal’s topspin forehand. Players facing Nadal for the first time have often commented in amazement of his unprecedented forehand.
But this aspect of Nadal’s forehand is made infinitely more difficult to deal with on clay, due to high and slow nature of the bounces seen on the red dirt. His shot is already vaulting out of his opponents strike zones without the assistance of the clay.
Put him on his beloved terre battue and his forehand is a terror for opponents to handle.
The offensive forehand is not the only reason why Nadal has been so successful on clay. It’s important to also consider his remarkable speed and defense.
Nadal is one of the fastest players on the ATP World Tour. He’s able to cover a large amount of court in a small amount of time. For years, the former No. 1 has presented himself as an impenetrable wall, one that can stand behind the baseline and defend the width of the court with his speed and scrambling. He is also able to cover acute angles that opponents attempt to create to break those barriers.
What’s so tough about Nadal on clay? When you’re at the mercy of Nadal’s forehand and offensive repertoire, there’s not much you can do. When you finally begin to play offense, there’s only so much you can do, before you’re suddenly playing defense again, or have lost the point.
On a surface that requires players to grind, Nadal has not only figured out how to beat opponents by playing immaculate defense, but he has also brought one of the most lethal forehands in tennis history to the table, a forehand that simultaneously combines power and safety. Never before has a single shot been as safe yet as powerful as Nadal’s forehand.
A clay court is already made of dust, but Rafael Nadal broke ground all the same.
What is your favorite aspect of Rafael Nadal’s clay court tennis? Sound off in the comments!