Opinion: Why is Nadal so good on clay?

By Ciaran O’Mahony

For over a decade, beating Rafael Nadal on clay has been one of the toughest tasks in sport.

It won’t be long before the old cliché is changed to “death, taxes and Nadal winning the French Open”.

His absurd dominance on the red dirt has forced tennis fans to view 2-3 months of the tennis calendar as a foregone conclusion.

It’s like the rest of the field is a giant piñata and Rafa is a hyper 5 year old wielding a baseball bat. And boy does he swing it with bad intentions!

But why, exactly, is Nadal so damn good on clay?

Patience and Tactical Brilliance

Experts tend to focus on his heavy, looping forehand and incredible athleticism.

Those are fundamental weapons for sure, but there’s a lot more to it.

Nadal deserves more credit for his tactical brilliance. His ability to dictate the play and cleverly construct each point is one of his biggest strengths.

Clay is a much slower surface than hard or grass courts, which means that even the most powerful players on the tour have to work harder to produce a winner.

Players who normally blast their way to victory with powerful groundstrokes have to be much more patient and consistent on clay.

They have more time to play their shots, but they have to treat it like a chess match and wait for the right moment to pull the trigger.

No one does this better than Nadal. How often do you see him throw a point away because he grew impatient?

Exactly. He refuses to miss!

The longer the rally goes, the more comfortable he becomes and the more frustrated his opponents get.

He may be aggressive, but he never rushes things and always seems to know exactly when to let rip. His heavy topspin also means that his shots loop well over the net, giving him plenty of margin for error.

Photo: Julian Finney via Getty Images

Toughness and Athleticism

Add Nadal’s immense athleticism to the above, and he can outlast almost anyone.

The points are so long and punishing on clay, that many of the matches seriously test players’ fitness and strength of will.

No one on the tour loves a gritty battle more than Nadal, whose mental toughness and conditioning are unparalleled.

His speed and footwork allow him to extend every point as he retrieves shots that no one else can. By blunting his opponents’ offense, he forces them to engage in long rallies with him.

His opponents have to work harder than they would against anyone else to make any in-roads. Some players are up for the challenge, but they struggle to sustain the level of skill, fitness and patience required for an entire match against Nadal.

Whether it takes him one hour or four, he will eventually break you – physically or mentally.

There’s nothing worse than hitting a shot that would normally be a clean winner and watching the ball come back at you with interest. Try experiencing that over and over again, for hours.

That Forehand

Heavy topspin is extremely effective on clay and Nadal’s forehand is arguably the heaviest groundstroke in the game.

His shots get an extra kick as they dig into the surface, bouncing up higher and at a greater angle than on faster surfaces.

His opponents often have to hit the ball from shoulder-height as a result. These high balls make it extremely difficult for them to generate speed, depth, power and angles with their shots.

Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos via Getty Images

Nadal’s topspin also forces them well behind the baseline, which puts them seriously on the back foot – clay is so slippery that it’s difficult to recover from this position.

With his opponents on the defensive, Nadal can control the rest of the point, breaking them down shot by shot, as he patiently creates openings to rip a trademark forehand winner.

The extreme spin he generates also allows him to create unique angles that give him a further edge in longer rallies.

These angles are difficult for right-handers to deal with, particularly on the backhand side as his cross-court forehand bounces at an acute angle away from their backhand.

Nadal can also hit more forehands on clay than any other surface because the ball comes at him so slowly that he can run around his backhand and hit an off-forehand or whip the ball down the line.

Given that it’s arguably the most devastating shot in the game, it’s almost unfair on everyone else that Nadal can hit more forehands on clay.

Conclusion

His whipping forehand is a major weapon, but his ability to take charge of the point, out-think and out-last his opponents is ultimately what separates Nadal from the pack.

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