King Rafa readies for return to clay-court palace
Rafael Nadal is an all-time best 21-1 in clay-court finals and has won 108 of his last 110 matches on clay.
ALMOST PERFECT ON CLAY
Best four-year runs on clay:
2005 (50-2) 96.2%
2006 (26-0) 100%
2007 (31-1) 96.9%
2008 (15-1) 93.8%
Total 122-4 96.8%
1977 (24-1) 96.0%
1978 (25-0) 100%
1979 (29-2) 93.5%
1980 (24-1) 96.0%
Total 102-4 96.2%
By Douglas Robson, Special for USA TODAY
The French Open's playing surface is a complex arrangement of distinct materials: crushed pebbles, ash, limestone and a fine coating of crushed brick that gives the clay its burnt-orange hue.
Spain's Rafael Nadal, the master of that surface, is likewise a layered composite of skills that have made him the non-pareil clay-courter of his generation — and in some minds, at 21, already the best ever.
What are Nadal's layers? Biting topspin, an indefatigable spirit, court-shrinking defense and a sprinkling of bravado have come together to make the kid from the small island of Mallorca the King of Clay. Next week, three-time defending champion Nadal will put his 21-0 record at Roland Garros on the line. The season's second major, the only one on clay, begins Sunday. The draw is Friday.
"To me, the key is how much topspin he gets on the ball," TV analyst and U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe says of the whirring shots that buy Nadal precious recovery time and create high-bouncing headaches for opponents. "It's just scary."
Nadal has been so scary on clay since bursting onto the tennis landscape as a muscular, leaping, fist-pumping teenager that the only modern comparison is to Bjorn Borg, the undisputed ruler of dirt until now. So it's no surprise that the Swedish legend is an admirer.
"I enjoy watching him play," says Borg, who won six French Open titles in eight years starting in 1974. "He always gives 100%. He is kind of an artist on the clay."
Despite his unblemished mark, the swashbuckling Spaniard says the smell of red Parisian dust offers no extra inspiration.
"It's no special feeling," Nadal said via e-mail last week. "I look at it just like I look at another tournament. Things could go well or wrong, but as I say, I will always try to give everything on court."
Nor is he taking his Paris success for granted.
Asked if he ever looks in the mirror and pinches himself over his unbeaten record in this major, he says, "No, I only look at the mirror … to comb my hair. I have had a good run in Roland Garros, and I feel privileged. I know it is not easy."
Though Borg's Open-era record of six French Open titles is safe for now, Nadal has been so dominant that he has edged Borg in another category: the best four-year winning percentage on clay in the Open era (since 1968).
Nadal's 122-4 (96.8%) mark from 2005 to 2008 is slightly better than Borg's 102-4 (96.2%) from 1977 to 1980.
"What he did the last four years is unbelievable," marvels the 51-year-old Swede, who won 11 majors. "It's going to be very interesting to see what he can do the next five years on clay."
As if on cue, Nadal is hitting Paris just as he has since winning his Roland Garros debut in 2005: brimming with confidence after victories against his biggest rivals with a slew of clay-court trophies in hand.
Last week, the world's second-ranked player beat No. 3 Novak Djokovic and No. 1 Roger Federer on his way to his first title in the Hamburg Masters. It was his third clay-court crown of the season after wins in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
"This has given me more confidence for Roland Garros," says Nadal, who improved to 8-1 on clay against Federer — including the last two French Open finals — and 10-6 overall. The victory avenged last year's loss to Federer in the Hamburg final, which snapped Nadal's record 81-match winning streak on clay.
The Hamburg title also boosted his record to an ATP tour-leading 37-7. Nadal is an all-time best 21-1 in clay-court finals and has won 108 of his last 110 matches on clay.
"You always have to keep adapting to Rafa," Federer said in Hamburg after Nadal beat him 7-5, 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, his second loss to Nadal on clay this spring.
Federer, still looking for his first French Open title, also lost to Nadal in the final in Monte Carlo.
Cracks in armor?
If Nadal is the favorite, there have been some atypically irritable moments for him this spring, and even a rare loss.
The preternaturally upbeat player has been a vocal critic of the scrunched clay-court calendar, during which three high-level Masters Series events (Monte Carlo, Rome and Hamburg) fall within a span of four weeks. The top players are required to participate in all of the Masters Series events, and the Beijing Olympics in August puts a further squeeze on the calendar.
In Rome two weeks ago, Nadal lost on clay for just the second time since April 2005 when Juan Carlos Ferrero — a fellow Spaniard and the 2003 French Open champion — upset him, though Nadal was hindered by blisters on his foot.
When Nadal held off Djokovic in Hamburg, he kept his 148-week streak at No. 2 alive. However, that was little solace for Nadal.
"It means that there is someone better than me in the top and that I have not been able to reach him," he says.
Still, on clay, Nadal reigns. No one looks more primed to equal or surpass Borg as the Open-era leader in French Open titles.
Honed footwork in soccer
Besides Nadal growing up on dirt, the foundations of his prowess can be traced in part to his upbringing.
Nadal's uncle Toni has served as his primary coach his entire life, ensuring a stability and single-minded insularity. Toni persuaded Nadal at 12 to switch to a one-handed forehand with his left hand (he used two hands on both wings and even today eats and writes with his right hand), a move not unlike Pete Sampras' switch to a one-handed backhand to cultivate an attacking style for grass.
In soccer-mad Spain, Nadal played tennis and soccer competitively until he was a teenager, honing his superior footwork. And under the influence of another uncle, former pro soccer player and Spanish national team member Miguel Angel, Nadal developed a disciplined professionalism. Some have even said Nadal's favorite pastime, fishing, is responsible for his dogged court patience.
"He seems to be only getting better," McEnroe says.
Nadal's hard work on other surfaces is paying off on clay, according to McEnroe. Taking the ball early, serving bigger and pushing into the court have created more attacking opportunities and allowed him to win matches more easily.
"He's drilling people," McEnroe says. "That's because he's playing more offensive and he's able to put guys away faster, which is saving energy for when he really needs it."
Though no one will concede the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy in Paris — least of all Federer and Djokovic — Nadal's biggest obstacle might be his grinding style of play.
Because the 6-1 player expends so much energy chasing balls and whipping topspin-laden zingers, lack of freshness might be Nadal's one Achilles' heel. The second-round exit in Rome could be a blessing in disguise because it allowed him extra time to rest and recover from the blistered foot.
But even a weary Nadal is apt to grind opponents into submission, especially the longer the match goes. He has never lost a five-set match on clay and has never been pushed beyond four sets at Roland Garros.
"If someone is going to beat Nadal in Paris over five sets," Borg says, "he's going to have to play the best match of his life."