A teenage Rafa Nadal burst onto the scene when he rattled off 24 consecutive victories on clay during the 2005 season. He swept world number one Roger Federer aside in the French Open semi-finals and then made short work of Mariona Puerta to clinch his first Grand Slam. Since then Nadal has racked up a number of astonishing records on clay. He has won the French Open 12 times and he holds a 98% win record at Roland-Garros. No player has ever dominated a Grand Slam to such an extent, while Nadal has racked up a record 59 titles in total on the red dirt. Why is he so dominant on clay? These are the top five reasons:
1. Phenomenal athleticism and conditioning
The Spaniard has always been a tremendous athlete. He has the pace to cover the court comprehensively, the strength to smash plenty of winners and the stamina to keep going during long rallies. Clay is the slowest surface and it is therefore conducive to long, drawn out points. Nadal excels on this surface due to his extraordinary athleticism. It is even more pronounced in best-of-five set matches at the French Open, where he boasts a 93-2 record. His only two defeats came at the hands came against Robin Soderling in 2009 and Novak Djokovic in 2015, but it transpired that he was struggling with injuries at both tournaments. He took an extended break from the sport a few years ago and returned stronger than ever. He has won the last three French Open titles and he is always the favourite in the exciting tennis markets when the action takes place on clay.
2. A ferocious forehand with plenty of topspin
Nadal’s forehand is a force of nature. It is an extremely heavy and aggressive groundstroke, and he is able to generate a great deal of topspin. This allows him to create sharp angles, which give Nadal an advantage on long rallies. His shots benefit from an extra kick when they dig into the clay surface. It sends the ball higher, forcing his opponents to return from shoulder height and making it very difficult for them to respond with power, depth and precision of their own. By contrast, Nadal’s backhand is a defensive stroke and he is rarely able to hit winners off it. That can be problematic on fast courts, but on clay he is able to run around his backhand on a regular basis, allowing him to unleash his lethal forehand instead.
3. Peerless command of the court
Nadal grew up playing on clay courts and he is clearly at home on the surface. He has an intimate knowledge of the angles, the way the ball will bounce and the type of shot necessary in each instance. He never looks as comfortable on hard courts or grass. Nadal knows when to attack and when to defend. He is able to seamlessly manoeuvre himself into a winning position, and pick off his opponents. On clay, a tennis match is a lot more strategic than on grass or hard surfaces. It turns into a war of attrition, and Nadal’s peerless command of the court – combined with his phenomenal athleticism and mental fortitude – helps him grind his opponents into submission. He reaches balls that others cannot, he prolongs rallies beyond the levels that most can endure and he uses his strategic brilliance to drag his opponents all over the court, leaving them exhausted and deflated.
4. He benefits from being left-handed
Left-handers generally enjoy an advantage over their right-handed rivals, and it becomes more pronounced on clay. Opponents are less accustomed to facing a southpaw. The angles are different and they regularly find themselves bamboozled. Nadal fully exploits this by applying a great deal of topspin to his groundstrokes, causing the ball to bounce at hazardous angles. He slices from the advantage side of the court, forcing his opponents a lot wider than they are used to travelling, and this allows him to regularly seize control of the point in an aggressive fashion. When he faces a right-handed with a beautiful backhand, such as Federer, Nadal uses defensive cross-court forehands to neutralise that backhand, pushing the opponent way behind the baseline and then ruthlessly capitalising upon the space he has generated.
5. His mere presence intimidates opponents
Players clearly suffer from anxiety when they prepare to face Nadal on clay. His record is outrageous and that gives him a considerable fear factor. You regularly see accomplished opponents committing an unusual number of unforced errors when facing him on the surface. A great example came when he faced another clay court specialist, Dominic Thiem, in the Monte Carlo Open quarter-final in 2018. The normally formidable Thiem hit 25 unforced errors that day and Nadal wrapped up a 6-0 6-2 victory in just 67 minutes. Opponents feel they must play a perfect match in order to beat him, and that often causes them to struggle. The Spaniard clearly gets under his rivals’ skin. You never see him break a racket or go berserk. He keeps a cool head and remains extremely patient during long rallies, and these traits unsettle rivals. His record speaks for itself, and many opponents look beaten before they even step out on the court.