When Rafael Nadal overcame Dominic Thiem in straight sets, it saw him clinch an unprecedented 11th French Open title and served to confirm a well-known tennis truth. Rafa is the King of Clay.
The French Open is a unique event in that it is the only Grand Slam tournament to use a clay court, and this surface has famously brought out the best in Nadal throughout his career. The Spaniard thrives at the Stade Roland-Garros in particular, with a record of just two defeats in his 87 matches at the famous venue. His eleven title haul becomes even more impressive when it is considered that Roger Federer’s eight Wimbledon titles is the closest any other tennis player has got to achieving such pre-eminence at one Grand Slam.
Nadal’s recurring success in Paris can be viewed as a microcosm of his sheer dominance on all clay surfaces in the modern era. His closest challenger in history is Bjorn Borg who picked up a cool 30 clay court titles, but this looks misleadingly mediocre in comparison to Nadal’s 57 accolades on the surface. It would not be an overstatement to suggest that no sportsperson in history has ever been more dominant at one single thing than Nadal at clay court tennis. This is the extent of the Majorcan’s mastery.
“bjorn borg’s record on clay is mediocre in comparison”
His major successes on the dusty surface extend as far back as his initial breakthrough on the ATP World Tour in the 2005 season, where he notched up the first of many French Open titles. Since his arrival on the professional scene, Rafa boasts a staggering 92% success ratio on clay. This is a record that Federer, Djokovic and other greats of the modern era can only aspire to.
So, what is it exactly that makes Rafael Nadal such a formidable opponent in clay court tennis?
The story of the Spaniard’s success extends as far back as his sport-frenzied childhood in Majorca. Rafa was just 3 years old when he was introduced to tennis by his uncle Toni, who was the manager of their local club. Quickly identifying his nephew as a child prodigy, Toni intensely coached Rafa on the clay courts of Manacor throughout his early years. Toni did not shy away from putting Rafa on particularly poor clay surfaces during this time, developing his ability to cope in tough conditions. Resulting from his uncle’s guidance, Rafa feels very much at home on clay and this at the crux of his success.
“nadal started playing on clay at the age of three”
Nadal’s brilliance is further magnified by the fact that clay is a notoriously difficult surface to consistently master. This is due to the slow nature of clay courts which permits players more time to play shots, lending itself to longer and more vigorous rallies. Born a natural sportsman, Rafa continued to develop his superhuman athleticism through his highly disciplined training sessions with his uncle. He is both strong and fast which gives him a sizable advantage in the intense rallies on clay surfaces. Borg was similarly renowned for his athleticism in his youth but whereas the Swede’s fitness dropped off in his late twenties, Nadal is going from strength to strength at the age of 33. Rafa’s relentless dedication to his craft is what makes him the greatest clay court player in history.
Nadal also possesses one of the finest forehands in the game. Its impact is significantly multiplied on clay as the slow travel of the ball gives the Spaniard additional time to run around his backhand and play a destructive forehand shot. The upward swing action that Rafa deploys in these shots enables him to generate phenomenal topspin that immediately forces his opponent on the back foot. If the point is not already won, Nadal has come to anticipate hastily manufactured return shots from his struggling opponent. These shots often land short enough for Rafa to attack the ball with all his professed might, enabling him to seal the point successfully.
The final weapon in Rafa’s arsenal is perhaps the most crucial; his mental strength. Nadal enters every clay match loaded with confidence, whilst his opponent has already accepted the size of the task ahead. Even after suffering from cramp in the third set of the French Open final, he managed to further increase the tempo in his game and left little chance for 24-year-old Thiem; with the Austrian being an excellent clay courter in his own right. However, Rafa’s talent is incomparable. He has moulded a clay-defined aura that makes him nigh on impossible to beat.
“nadal’s mental strength is his greatest asset”
A vast catalogue of qualities make Nadal perfectly suited to the clay surface and, more specifically, the French Open. In fact, it has reached the point where the Spaniard’s triumphant raising of his arms towards the Parisian sky on a mid-June Sunday evening has become one of the surest sights in tennis.