FEATURE: What makes Rafael Nadal so dominant on clay?
Rafael Nadal has effortlessly dominated the Monte Carlo Masters this week, but what is it that makes him so good on the surface?
What makes clay different?
Essentially, clay surfaces take the speed off the ball after it’s been hit. There is more to it than that, of course, but that’s clay’s defining feature.
The surface is also sticky compared to grass and hard, which reduces the skid on the ball and it tends to offer high bounces as a result.
It strips the big servers of their primary weapon and brings the brain into play far more than both hard and grass surfaces which tend to test the instincts of players far more.
So why exactly does that play so well into the hands of Rafael Nadal?
Nadal’s athleticism is off the charts. In fact, you just have to look at him to see that.
The big servers on the ATP tour are often also the tallest players, which means they are not only denied their usual advantage, but they find movement more laborious and can be more easily worn down.
Nadal, though, is tall enough to be able to cover the court comprehensively and quickly without it taking too much energy out of him.
Slower tennis, we must remember, makes for longer points, and longer points make for longer matches, so the fitness and durability of players is never tested more than on clay, especially at the best-of-five sets French Open.
At it’s fastest – i.e. Wimbledon – tennis is a frantically paced blink-and-you’ll-miss-it serve and volley free-for-all. The big serves come booming in and skid off the surface. If it’s returned with quality and a rally ensues, players, fearing falling victim to the uneven bounce that grass courts produce, scamper to the net looking to minimise the risk.
At it’s slowest, though – i.e. clay – tennis becomes a strategist’s dream. It gives players more thinking time between strokes and adds a chess-like element to the contest.
Nadal is a master when it comes to tennis strategy, and it’s never more evident that when he has red underfoot.
He knows when to attack, he knows when to defend, and he knows how and when to manoeuvre himself into winning positions on the court.
He’s left-handed, and it helps – a lot
Left-handers do have an advantage over right-handers, and it’s not just because players are less-accustomed to facing them.
Firstly, when rallying cross court they are more able to strike the ball to their opponen’s backhand AND more used to defending on their own.
They have the ability to slice serve from the advantage side of the court, forcing their right-handed opponent wider than they are used to, which opens up the court for the lefty to aggressively take control of the point.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly in Nadal’s case, they are able to approach the ball at an angle that allows them put unusual spin on the ball that can easily bamboozle a right-handed player.
Most of this comes down to simple mathematics. 10% of players on the tour are left-handed, so they play right handed players and deal with the angles and shots they create 90% of the time, where as right-handed players simply don’t get the chance to master the challenges presented by playing left-handers.
Speaking of topspin, Rafa has the added advantage of being ale to generate a ridiculous amount of it.
The technique he uses makes it more of a topspin drive than anything else that gives it both pace and vicious bounce.
It all comes together to make a deadly combination. He wears an opponent down by reaching balls others cant and prolonging points beyond what most players can comfortably last, puts them in the worst possible possible position with his court smarts, ruthless strategies and left-handed angled serves, then sends them a shot they’re not used to defending when they’re least able.
Roy Keane once said of the great Manchester United team that he played in, that almost all of the teams they faced were already beaten before the game even started, purely down to the fear involved in the mere prospect of facing them.
Without a doubt, that plays a part in Nadal’s greatness on clay.
Dominic Thiem, one of the ATP Tour’s very finest clay players produced 25 unforced errors in his Monte Carlo Masters quarter final defeat to Nadal, most of them down to pure anxiety.
Players believe the need perfection to beat him on clay and put pressure on themselves to produce it, and it’s not conducive to playing your best tennis.
However, although it’s a huge advantage to Nadal, it’s one he’s very much earned.
Comment – Andy Murray has the answers he needs as he decides what happens next
Murray should appreciate that a chastening handful of defeats should offer him the ray of light he has been seeking.
WTA Transylvania Open draw: Potential Simona Halep and Emma Raducanu blockbuster semi-final looming
This way for your Transylvania Open draw.
Tennis icon Billie Jean King explains why she admires Ons Jabeur and why she wants the Tunisian to succeed
Billie Jean King is certainly a big fan of Ons Jabeur.
Disappointment for Emma Raducanu as she prepares to play in Romania
Raducanu had spoken about her excitement ahead of Transylvania Open.
‘They seemed to have a nice camaraderie’ – Tennis great urges Emma Raducanu to rehire her former coach
Should Emma Raducanu rehire Andrew Richardson?
WATCH: Rafael Nadal helps to create an ‘unforgettable’ birthday for 90-year-old with special message
A special birthday wish from Rafael Nadal.
‘It was a difficult decision but I need to prioritise my body,’ says Ashleigh Barty after ending 2021 campaign
The 25-year-old said she was ‘not willing to compromise my preparation for January’ and Australian Open.
‘Sport is a results business,’ says Andy Murray as he pinpoints where he needs to improve
“You need to be winning and winning matches maybe when you’re not playing your best,” says Murray.
Jannik Sinner still in the mix for ATP Finals qualification after making progress in Antwerp
Sinner stayed on course for the end-of-season Nitto ATP Finals.
Exclusive – Revealing the Mouratoglou coaching methods that took Serena Williams to a new level
What has made Patrick Mouratoglou the go-to guru for the game’s biggest names?