King Rafa 2005 – ?
Can anyone stop a prepared Nadal on clay? That is a question that has been hounding professional tennis since 2005. There are a few scenarios for how Nadal might lose a match on clay, but these scenarios become even less likely when a match moves to a best of five set format. I think for someone to dethrone Nadal on clay, he will need to be a fitness freak and fighter a la Ferrer, have a return game somewhere along the lines of Murray or Nole’s, and be able to take control of points with massive ground strokes. I don’t see that player on tour right now. The junior ranks are where we are most likely to find a physical specimen who has enough of a willingness to fight to have a chance to dethrone Nadal. I hope that we get to see a young lion push Nadal rather than see injuries lead to the close of Rafa’s clay court dictatorship.
Scenarios for a Nadal Loss During The 2013 European Clay Court Season
Don’t Count on Seeing a lot of This
Being the best player in the world on clay does not preclude one or two losses. Here are some scenarios for Nadal losing matches during this European clay court season.
- Novak Djokovic has a great day. If Novak gets into enough of Rafa’s service games, even on clay, he can win matches. Odds: 20 to 35%
- Del Potro or Berdych follows the Soderling blueprint. Odds: 15% for a 2 out of 3 set match and 10% or less at Roland Garros.
- Federer has a day where he does not miss. Not missing on clay versus Nadal is not something we have seen from Federer. At 31, it is less likely. Odds: 2%
- Ferrer or another speedy baseliner takes advantage of a health ailment a la Juan Carlos Ferrero in 2008. Odds: 10% or Less
- Nadal loses after a long layoff. We saw this happen in Chile earlier this year. The problem for the tour is that Rafa’s team are not fools. He played the Latin American clay court circuit to avoid rust during the European clay court season. Even a rusty Nadal put together an impressive run in Latin America. Odds: N/A as he is not rusty
- Blue Clay – Nadal hated blue clay and lost on it last year. Odds: N/A blue clay is no longer a part of the tour
- A big server such as Isner or Raonic wins a match with a lot of tiebreaks. This could happen in a two out of three set scenario. It is hard for me to see Nadal lose 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 at Roland Garros. Someone would have to serve out of his mind to pull this strategy off for three sets versus Nadal. Odds: 5 to 10%
A Few Reasons for Nadal’s Clay Court Success
- An aggressive game that has a high margin for error. Nadal’s shots aggressively beat up his opponents. Yet, he makes few errors. It is a nice combination that few can achieve.
- Fitness and Mental Fight: Nadal will not give in, just ask Coria or Federer about 5 set matches on clay. Despite a history of injuries and knee issues, Nadal seems to have a high energy level during individual matches or tournaments. He may pay the price months later, but that fact does not help people win matches against him in the short term.
- His left-handedness is an edge. Most players work their opponent’s backhand. Playing Nadal means reversing the flow of shots one hits 90% of the time. Hitting into Nadal’s forehand is a poor idea. This is especially true on clay.
- Movement – Nadal not only plays with a high margin for error, but he can stay in points in which he is not dictating. This forces many players to try for even bigger shots or even more extreme angles. That only ratchets up their error totals and mental duress.
- Soft Courts: Nadal loves to compete and concentrates like no other on tour. Clay courts allow for him to utilize these skills with a minimal level of impact on his knees and feet. Rafa has tendonitis and has had two stress fractures in his feet. Clay does not prevent tweaking these conditions, but it minimizes their impact allowing for his competitive spirit and preternatural focus to be more or less uninterrupted by physical distress.