After winning the French Open for the twelfth time in 2019, tennis star Rafael Nadal cemented himself as the “King of Clay.” This was never in doubt anyway because he’s just so good on the slower surface. We’re looking at what makes Nadal stand so far ahead of everyone else on the soft surface.
One of the things that has always made Rafael Nadal stand out from the rest of the field is his athletic ability. There is never a ball that’s lost to him, and on any surface, he covers so much ground it’s almost frightening. On clay, the ball is a little slower so that gives Nadal even more time to exploit his athleticism and return shots that otherwise might have passed him by.
Nadal is so fast that it forces his opponents to aim right for the corners of the court, otherwise they know their shot is coming back to them. The other amazingly impressive thing about Nadal’s physique is that he can just keep on going forever. He has the heart of a champion and will fight with every breath to win, especially on clay.
The surface is slightly harder to run on, which makes his endless tank of energy feel all the more draining for his opponents. Even if Nadal isn’t playing well, he always keeps the ball alive and forces his opponents to play just one more shot.
Left-handers have always given trouble to right-handed people in many sports. For right-handers in tennis, it’s hard to find elite practice partners at the same level because the chances are they’re a direct rival. When you combine Rafa Nadal’s dynamic left hand with the huge levels of topspin he generates on clay courts, you get a practically unbeatable player.
Because the ball tends to sit up nicely on clay, Nadal gets that extra split second or two to generate even more topspin on his forehand returns. That makes it practically impossible for the person on the other side of the net to return his shots.
Even when Nadal’s opponents do get his shots back, they won’t be as effective as they want them to be. As Nadal is left-handed, it helps to open up the court to him, which means he can smash cross-court balls that are so hard for right-handers to return.
Nadal will not give up on any shot on any surface, but where that attitude is needed most is on the clay. It’s seen as the toughest surface to play on, so it makes sense that the most determined player on the circuit is so good on it. Momentum can change quite quickly on clay, so every single shot needs to be hit with maximum concentration. That is Nadal’s great strength, and no matter how things are going, he’s going to continue playing the same way over and over again.
Thanks to his record over the years, players facing Nadal are almost beaten before they even step onto the court. They know that even playing at their best is probably not going to be good enough and Nadal has won over 90% of his career matches on clay.
On hard and grass surfaces Nadal has around a 77% win percentage, but on clay, his game is on a completely different level. That’s why he has won 12 clay Grand Slams and ‘only’ six at the three others. For Nadal to be so good on clay, it begs the question of why he can’t be as good on other surfaces, but the other surfaces are perfect for his rivals Federer and Djokovic.
On other surfaces, Nadal uses his forehand which is countered by right-handed backhands. On clay the ball bounces much higher, which means right-handed players struggle to return Nadal’s whipped forehand. For instance, Roger Federer’s slice backhand is the perfect counter to Nadal’s forehand, but on clay, it is far less effective.
This means that Nadal actually has two defensive weapons instead of just one. As the ball bounces much higher and the play is slower on clay, Nadal has time to adjust himself and play many more forehand shots.
Trying to keep Nadal on his backhand is what most opponents try to do on clay, but he’s so fast that it becomes almost impossible. Then, whenever he gets the chance to start hitting forehands, you might as well just give him the point already.
As if Nadal’s freakish athleticism wasn’t impressive enough, his uncle Toni made sure his nephew worked on his footwork a lot. Because of his elite level footwork, Nadal can make adjustments on clay that other players can only dream of.
Then if you throw into the mix his amazing strength, you’ve got the perfect clay court player. Nadal’s arm strength allows him to smash the ball back over the net, forcing his opponents to have no chance at returning his forehands.
Nadal has 12 French Open titles and counting. He has already beaten most of his opponents mentally before he even gets on the court, and anyone willing to step up to him soon learns not to. Nadal is the King of Clay, and there probably won’t be another player as dominant as him again.