Is Clay Nadal’s Weakness?

To paraphrase so many in the tennis world right now (but this isn’t news nor revelatory at all): Nadal’s dominance on clay is phenomenal; I would say absurd.

Before I go on: Congrats, Rafa!


But you know me: time for a little perspective ala Mcshow.

Let’s talk about the clay a little bit more.

French Open titles:

Rod Laver: 2
Bjorn Borg: 6
Ivan Lendl: 3
Pete Sampras: 0
Roger Federer: 1
Rafael Nadal: 10
Novak Djokovic: 1

If you ask a large enough sample of tennis people (fans and “experts”) who the greatest player of all time is, you probably get answers centering on 4 or 5 players: Laver, Sampras, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. In discussions today, especially because of 2017 and our current season, fresh underway, you’ll get Federer and Nadal more and more (because of their success and Djokovic’s struggles).

I included Borg up there to be fair (and not deny his success at Roland Garros) and Lendl too, who’s career and tennis style should garner more appreciation than they probably do; he too had success in Paris. Borg, in some conversations, probably still gets a lot of love given the length (short) of his career.

In a different time, however, after the Borg/Lendl era(s) and before this recent golden age of tennis, Sampras’ dominance at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, his six consecutive year-end No.1’s, his success against his rivals like Agassi, and his 14 total majors (which surpassed Laver by three and the under-the-radar Roy Emerson by two) had him an unanimous GOAT. This was pretty over-whelming, pretty much the consensus, end of conversation.

We’ve discussed this before, in HRFRT, for instance: part of Sampras’ burn-out was he had pretty much climbed the mountain, made such a significant case for his place as the all-time great (the sixth year-end No. 1 was especially taxing) that he called it quits — as there wasn’t much more to accomplish. Seriously. The conversation was Borg and Laver (and Emerson), but Sampras quelled much of any sort of tennis debate.

This is often forgotten. Interestingly enough, Laver is bigger in the discussion of GOAT now than he was when Pete ruled the sport. I have theories as to why this is the case, and you’re free to ask, but that’s pretty much a tennis truth: Pete had established such a massive dominance of the sport and handled himself with such class that there was really no debate at the time.

He had zero French Open titles.

What does that mean?

Feel free to comment — though the trend these days appears to be read and refrain from commenting. 😉

The French is, indeed, one of the four majors; but in an earlier time, it clearly did not (and really still does not) exist on the same plane as WB or the U.S. Open. Once Borg, Wilander and Lendl had come and gone, the French was a major pretty much dominated by inferior tennis players.

Between Wilander (seven majors) and Nadal (sixteen majors), here is a list of French Open titlists: Chang, Gomez, Courier, Bruguera, Muster, Kafelnikov, Kuerten, Moya, Agassi, Costa, Ferrero, and Gaudio. That’s 1989 to 2004, or 16 years. Agassi is in bold because he’s the outlier.

Even several of the runners-up in these contests might give you a little pause, shed even more light on the kind of tennis or tennis player succeeding on the red clay of Roland Garros.

That should tell you something. Clay is a marginalized surface, that list of names, Agassi aside, providing pretty sound illustration of this claim.

When Federer came out of the clouds and dominated at an unimaginable pace, accumulating majors in bunches, suddenly the conversation became Pete and Roger.

By 2008, Federer had 13 majors, so he was now knocking at that proverbial door. His dominance at SW19 and in NYC, in particular, catapulted him into that class, of players who play that classic style, who dominate throughout the year, and who win on the biggest stages.

In 2008, Pete’s 14 still stood supreme, but Roger with 13 and still with plenty of tennis left had every historian’s attention. Yet neither had a French Open title.

Obviously, Federer won his only FO the following year, in 2009.

Again, what does this mean?

I have written about the clay, the clay debate, etc., on several occasions. You probably know where I stand on this before even reading this post. And you might be wondering what in the hell is my point.

My point is Nadal continues to be quite the enigma. In saltier moods I say worse. His dominance on the surface is astonishing, mind-blowing, etc. But I may have to go to a little witticism I heard in graduate school that made sense in that particular context and often works in many other discussions and arguments:

Your strength is your weakness.

Nadal’s clay-skewed dominance is certainly something I’m remarkably aware of. Without clay, I once argued, he would have foregone the sport and joined his uncle in professional futbol (soccer). He derived so much confidence and intimidation from his insane success on this surface. You know the riff here: this imbalance complicates his case for all-around and all-time tennis dominance.

Indeed, he won his 76th title today in claiming his 11th Monte Carlo Masters. From my count, 54 of those 76 titles have been on clay.

That’s 71% of his ATP titles. No deal, little deal, or big deal?

The warrant above, the status of clay throughout the history of the ATP, I think, adds to this conversation. Like it or not.

Of course 62.5% of his majors have been rendered on clay, with that percentage reading more like 65% in about a month.

He’s the king of the clay, emphatically, undoubtedly.

And this, still being the case in 2018, with the ATP field in literal shambles around him, is a joke. As good as Federer has been, especially in 2017-18, he’s usually had to show some incredible nerve and tennis genius to advance and lift trophies.

These clay contests, on the other hand, are a foregone conclusion. No, I did not watch today’s final. I went for a hike and I kid you not: afterwards, I got in my car, grabbed my phone to check the score and said out-loud, to no one, “3 and 2.” No need to make this up. The predictability is a bit of a crisis.

And to be clear, two things can be true: Nadal’s clay dominance is historical and other-worldly and it’s a terrible look for the sport.

In light of Nadal’s non-existent competition, a certain point of strategy has been circulating the airwaves: why is no one hitting an under-hand serve to counter Nadal’s junkyard ROS tactics/positioning? We’ve seen this at the top of the sport before.

Even the guys calling the match on Tennis Channel asked about this lack of strategy from Nadal’s opponents.

Nadal sitting 20 feet behind the BL in Arthur Ashe, trying to neutralize a (slowed-down) hard court is one thing. But look at this position here in Monte Carlo (and no, you can’t see him — he’s so far back):

Nadal, other than a healthier Djokovic (we hope), or maybe a Del Potro, once he’s found his feet of clay, has no ounce of challenge, seemingly, on the clay.

Back to the first part of this post, that one’s strength is one’s weakness: Is this the case with Nadal and his favorite surface? As much as I am a big fan of irony, I doubt this counter-intuitive slice stays in “the court,” if you catch my drift.

But in that big-time debate in which so many lunatics, like even me on occasion, find ourselves, how does one not contemplate the impossible: Clay is Nadal’s weakness.


We’ll breakdown Barcelona next and keep talking this talk since I like to and there’s really nothing else to talk about other than the obvious fact that Rafael Nadal is an absolute beast on the clay.


5 thoughts on “Is Clay Nadal’s Weakness?

  1. dlima1987

    Good stuff Matt! Some additional points for discussion

    1. Even if you exclude clay, Nadal has 6 grand slam titles (and at least 3 finals at each of these slams) which puts him par witj someone like Becker

    2. Nadal’s focus on clay is indeed a weakness and it hurts his performance on other surfaces, Wimbledon noticeably

    3. An idea I have seen you develop a lot is the difference between Wimbledon and US Open and the AO and RG. In fact, nowadays I feel the grand slams are regarded at the same level. For instance in hardcourts there is no significant difference in difficulty between winning the US Open and the AO.

    4. While I agree with your assessment over the 90s, if you take a look at RG titlists and finalists over the last 13 years you have Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Wawrinka (Winners) and Murray, Ferrer, Soderling and Puerta. This doesn’t look lile a marginalized surface.



  2. dlima1987 —
    Thanks for the comment.

    The hierarchy to which I often (and you) refer still holds, imho. At the same time, you are correct.

    For instance, Djokovic having six AO titles rings quite different in my ear compared to someone with six USO titles. Does that make sense? Is that because I am an American? Not necessarily.

    On the other hand, the AO has certainly gained prestige and I admit that it’s pretty much the same, counts the same compared to any of the other three; but having watched the sport for so long, that history takes-up room in my brain. The fact, for instance, that Borg, Connors and McEnroe really never played the AO, at all, is a tough pill to swallow; that affects its prestige, which I think has been overcome.

    Likewise, a guy like Federer (ruined tennis) developed a complete game that became dangerous on all surfaces — think if the greatest clay courter in the history of the world hadn’t come along when he did? Federer would have a couple calendars. But my point is Federer created this all-surface standard that Nadal and Djokovic certainly have tried to emulate. The standard now is winning all four.

    The taming of the surfaces aka the homogenization of the surfaces helped too, so it’s pretty complicated, really — a different sport now with different standards of greatness.

    I have a follow-up to this latest post that hopefully publishes tomorrow.
    Thanks again and keep it coming.


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