Rafael Nadal’s Latest Renaissance: Can Anyone Stop Him on Clay?

Rafael Nadal won Monte Carlo and Barcelona for the 10th time each!  He also banked 1500 computer points in the process.  If one adds his 1200 points from Australia, 300 from Acapulco, and 600 from Miami, Rafael Nadal has positioned himself to make another run at the #1 ranking.  With 3600 points from those 5 events, Nadal is close to catching Roger Federer for the lead in the 2017 points race.  With Federer playing a light clay court schedule or no clay court events at all, it seems likely that Nadal will enter the 2017 French Open leading the points race.

Carlos Moya’s Role

Rafael and Toni Nadal are no longer working as closely together this season with the understanding that their highly successful partnership will fully close at the end of the 2017 season.  It is quite possible that they ceased working together between the Australian Open and Acapulco.  No one can argue with the success they experienced as a player-coach duo, but a fresh set of eyes and a new voice can help a player internalize advice that may be identical to what a previous coach offered.

Rafael Nadal’s career has always been guided by a close-knit family unit.  Moya is also from Mallorca and practiced with Rafa since Nadal’s days as a junior.  This gives Nadal the best of both worlds.  Moya knows what it is like to compete for big crowns as he reached 2 major finals, won 3 of 6 Masters 1000 finals and reached the final round of the 1997 ATP World Championship (World Tour Finals today).  Moya also saw his career rebound in 2002 when his best days seemed to have ended sometime around Wimbledon 1999 due to injury issues.  His perspective and new enough voice seem to be clicking with Rafa.

Can Anyone Stop Nadal on Clay in 2017?

At this moment, Rafael Nadal appears to be on a collision course with his 10th Roland Garros title.  However, with Madrid, Rome and a host of smaller events to be played, it is possible challengers will emerge to push Nadal on clay.  Who are the most likely to stop Nadal in Paris?  Here are my early guesses:

  1. Novak Djokovic – Djokovic’s game matches up well with Nadal’s.  The 2016 Roland Garros champion can return well enough to make Rafa work to hold every game and he can get the ball to parts of the court that neutralize some of Rafa’s forehand based offense.  Finally, Novak beat Rafa at Roland Garros in 2015.  That is a mental hurdle for anyone to climb, but Djokovic knows he can climb it.  Djokovic seems to be hitting the ball well enough, but his powers of focus and conditioning will need to peak in Paris.
  2. Stan Wawrinka – Stan Wawrinka always seems to have 2 or 3 tournaments per year in which his form is markedly better than the rest of the season.  He is a power player who benefits from 3 of 5 set matches as can bully an opponent into submission.  He knows what it is like to win Roland Garros.  If, and it is a big if, conditions are slow enough that Stan can power through a court that most of his opponents struggle to finish points on, he can beat anyone.  Banking on playing  out of one’s mind is not an easy game plan, but he has won 3 majors in the previous 3 seasons by doing just that.
  3. Andy Murray – Murray’s 2017 season has not started like his 2016 season ended.  Having said that, he recorded a nice clay court win over Nadal last year.  If Murray’s health is where he wants it to be, he and coach Lendl may be aiming toward peaking in Paris by playing his way into form.  That is Murray’s best case scenario, but I think he may be slowly hitting reset on a season that has started in a less than stellar manner.
  4. A Grinder – Rafael Nadal entered his 2011 Australian Open quarterfinal match against David Ferrer seeking a 12 month grand slam.  The two played some punishing points early in which Nadal could tell his nagging injuries would hamper his play.  David Ferrer eventually eliminated Nadal by turning those injuries into a factor.  Ferrer makes Rafa beat him.  A player willing to pay the price and not give an inch will still face long odds versus Nadal, but Rafa has logged a lot of matches since 2005 and sometimes he is less sharp physically.  A player willing to pay the price can take advantage if Nadal is less than 100%.
  5. Lucas Pouille, David Goffin, and Dominic Thiem – I don’t think any of these 3 have a great chance versus Nadal in 2017 especially since Nadal pulverized both Goffin and Thiem in his 2 clay titles of the year.  Still, under the right circumstance, they could get into a dogfight with Nadal and give him trouble.
  6. A Shotmaker – Fabio Fognini has at times bothered Nadal.  The same holds true for Fernando Verdasco.  Grigor Dimitrov pushed Nadal hard in the Australian Open semifinal round.  Again, I don’t see any shotmaker as being overly likely to beat Rafael Nadal in Paris, but a shotmaker could play out of his mind for a day.
  7. A Practitioner of Big Man Tennis – Outside of Djokovic’s game versus Nadal, big men have the clearest game plan versus Nadal.   A tall player who can set the tone of most points through first strike tennis built on powerful serves and punishing returns can take away some of Nadal’s grinding, scrambling and counter-punching. The good news for Nadal is that he seems to be playing his best clay court tennis since 2014 at a time when most of the practitioners of Big Man Tennis seem to be in decline.  Does anyone see the 2017 versions of Tsonga, Berdych, Cilic, JMDP, or Raonic really bothering Nadal on clay?  Tsonga has 2 titles this year, but they both came on fast surfaces.

The Wild Card: Roger Federer – Federer is 3-0 versus Rafa in 2017 and has won 5 consecutive sets and 7 of 9 total sets.  All of these wins came on hard courts including a faster than usual Australian Open, but Federer does have some good wins to build upon should he face Rafa on dirt.  The problem is that Federer’s clay court schedule is not ideal preparation for Roland Garros.  He may not even play Roland Garros so Federer is not a big factor in the Roland Garros calculus just yet.

Of course with two Masters 1000 events plus several smaller events in front of the men’s tour, it is quite possible that someone’s form will rise and/or Nadal’s form will drop.  At that point, more accurate predictions for Roland Garros 2017 can be made.

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