The clay court season gets underway in earnest as the game’s biggest hitters take centre stage at the Monte Carlo Masters, with Rafael Nadal looking to add to his remarkable tally of 10 titles at one of the most iconic events on the tennis calendar.
Nadal’s dominance on the red stuff has been so complete over the last decade that the debate over his status as the game’s all-time ‘King of Clay’ has long since been assured, but what makes the magnificent Majorcan so hard to beat of the surface he has mastered like no other in tennis history.
Tennis365 canvassed the views of some of the game’s all-time greats to assess why Nadal has been in a league of his own on clay courts.
“For as long as most of us can remember, Rafael Nadal has been the best player on a clay court and there are several reasons for his dominance.
“First of all, his movement on a clay court is exceptional, the spins he can put on the ball is incredible and it has a bigger effect on this surface and he also has an aura that make it tough for his opponent to believe he can be beaten on clay.
“To win as many tournaments as he has done on the surface is just incredible and it is a record that will probably never beaten. I know how hard it is to win the French Open. Clay was difficult for me because it was against what I wanted to do, against my personality maybe.
“On clay, the victor is the guy with the fewest mistakes, but I wanted to win matches by hitting the most winners and I found it hard to contain that ambition. I tried everything to win on clay, but it was tough for me.”
“I fought so hard to win the French Open one time and this guy has won it 10 times, which is just amazing.
“Rafa is a great inspiration for so many people around the world and whatever debate we might have over who is the best players of all-time, whether it is Rafa, Federer, Borg, Laver, there is no doubt about the best clay court player of all-time.
“He has taken the sport to an entirely different level on clay, there is no doubt about that. I mean, ten French Open titles? Come on, that’s not possible, but he has done it.”
“Clearly Rafa has always had an advantage over me on a clay court and the record confirms that. I tried many different things to change that head-to-head, changing a few things on my backhand, looking at different tactics, but he had the answers on clay.
“We see our matches on other surfaces are quite close, but this is where he has been dominant and at this point in my career, I have to give myself the best chance of winning tournaments and that is why I missed the clay court season (in 2017 and now in 2018).
“His movement is so impressive on clay and his game fits the surface perfectly. I feel like I can play well on clay, but it is physically demanding and Rafa has mastered that surface better than anyone.”
“It is the ultimate challenge in the sport, to beat Nadal on clay. I did it when I beat him in Madrid (in 2016 semi-final and 2017 final) and to beat him in a final on that surface in Spain was a proud moment obviously.
“I always felt like I should do better on clay in the past and I guess it isn’t natural to me. I don’t play on it at all for 10 months of the year and it generally takes me some time to get used to the sliding, the movement, which is very different to hard courts.
“You see the way Rafa moves on clay and that helps him so much. Also, he doesn’t need time to adapt to it and that helps him.”
“Of course Rafa is the best clay-court player ever. I won the French, Roger won there as well, but every other title for a long time has been Rafa.
“He is the ultimate challenge on the surface. Look at the record, it is just crazy and this is why beating at Roland Garros (2015 quarter-finals) meant so much to me.
“He is not called King of Clay for nothing. He is the ultimate challenge on this surface and the player to beat every time we have a clay court tournament for a good reason. He is left handed and that helps his game, he gets amazing angles and shows good invention on the court.”
Follow Kevin Palmer on Twitter @RealKevinPalmer
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