...interesting article about Nadal & his place in tennis~~ "clay court specialist...a backhand compliment"
#some Rafa fans will no doubt take offense, but still it`s not meant as a dig at Rafa!!
So feel free to leave your comments as to whether the author is right or wrong
Nadal still considered a clay-court specialist
This is the business part of the season for Rafael Nadal. From Monte Carlo through Roland Garros, Rafa is not only expected to win, he has to win. There are simply too many ranking points for him to defend when he hits the dirt if he’s going to protect his No. 2 position from Novak Djokovic, let alone make a realistic play for Roger Federer’s top spot.
In the last few years, Nadal has been up to the challenge, as his jaw-dropping record on clay attests. Consider: In 2007, he was 31-1 (the loss, to Roger Federer in Hamburg, snapped an Open-era record 81-match win streak). Even more astonishing, since April of 2005, Nadal has a claycourt win-loss record of 93-1.
Rafael Nadal has won 18 singles titles, 13 on clay and five on hardcourts. His record in finals is jut the opposite - only one of his eight finals losses has come on clay, and the other seven all on hardcourts or grass (including two Wimbledon finals).
© Claude Paris/AP
These stats have come to define Nadal’s career up to this point. They paint a portrait of a legend in the making, a tenacious baseline warrior who grinds out his victories on the most physically grueling surface in tennis. But therein lies the rub. Although Nadal has a strong record on hard and grass courts, he is a clay-court specialist. The stats prove it. No other player comes close to equaling his record on the dirt. And as hard as he tries to do well on other surfaces, Rafa is the quintessential dirtballer.
It’s no knock on his accomplishments. Yet, you can’t help but think how the term “clay-court specialist” has become a sort of backhanded compliment in the sport.
Many fans and experts alike tend to view clay-court specialists in a strange light. Yes, they applaud the stained socks and souls and the five-set wars of attrition, but they also prefer to ghettoize these players by slapping them with a label. You don’t hear folks referring to James Blake and Andy Roddick as hard court specialists, even though they most certainly excel on hard courts more than any other surface, and are virtually helpless on clay. No one labeled Pete Sampras a “grass court specialist,” even though, were it not for Wimbledon, he wouldn’t be ranked among the all-time greats.
Sampras padded his resume with 7 titles at the All England Club, surely enough to earn him some derisive praise or at least an asterisk, no? But win a couple French Open titles, as Sergi Bruguera did in the 1990s, and you’re forever branded a dirt devil. Do people look at Gustavo Kuerten, who’s retiring after this year’s Roland Garros, as anything but a clay-court specialist? Not really. Is Thomas Muster remembered as being a versatile player who once captured Key Biscayne? No, he’s the guy who went to Umag, on clay, before the U.S. Open, to gobble up ranking points. Other players cast as clay-court specialists include Albert Costa, Alberto Berasategui, Andres Gomez, Guillermo Coria, and Gaston Gaudio.
The template for the clay-court specialist—the player who is glued to the baseline and wears down his opponents with heavy, safe topspin rather than trying to end points with penetrating drives or closing them out at net—was set by Guillermo Vilas in the 1970s. He reached the final of the French Open four times, winning the title once, and had the longest win streak on clay before Nadal hit the tour. While Vilas also won the Australian and US Open, he’s remembered for his exploits on clay. There were others at the time who excelled even more on clay, most notably Bjorn Borg. But Borg dominated on the grass at Wimbledon (hard courts were his bugaboo).
The high point (or low point, depending on your perspective) of the clay-court specialist was from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, when the likes of Bruguera, Muster, and later Kuerten, Coria, and Gaudio dominated on the dirt but struggled mightily on other surfaces. Indeed, many of the Spanish and South American dirtballers didn’t even bother to show up at Wimbledon and they didn’t exactly exude a desire to win in Flushing Meadows, either.
These days, the classic clay-court specialist appears to be a dying breed. Most guys on tour play a similar all-court game—it’s what TENNIS Magazine senior editor Peter Bodo has termed the “World Game.” Take a guy like Nikolay Davydenko. He’s a French Open semifinalist, but he’s also a threat at the U.S. Open and Australian Open. Same goes for many other ATP players. There is, however, one guy with bulging biceps keeping the tradition of the clay courter alive.
Nadal talks with passion about wanting to do well on all surfaces, and you must respect him for that. And his fans point out, rightfully so, that he’s won Master Series events on hard courts, plus reached the Wimbledon final. But try as Nadal might, he is, in mindset and style of play, a clay-court specialist of old. Topspin tedium and tenacity are his calling cards. Given the way he plays, he has far more in common with the Brugueras and Musters than the Djokovics and Federers. Of course, Nadal is a level or two above those guys in terms of pace and power, not to mention his speed and athleticism. He can also venture to net and rip an occasional shot for a spectacular winner, including off the backhand side despite the paucity of his technique. In short, Nadal hits with more bite and juice than, say, Coria could ever dream of doing.
Yet, Rafa is still most at home when he’s scrambling from corner to corner, counter-punching and digging out shots. Like the classic clay-court specialists, he mostly uses his serve to start a point, not hit an ace, and relies on his forehand, not his backhand. You won’t see Rafa smack big backhands down the line with the regularity or comfort level of a Djokovic or Federer. It’s a war of attrition for Nadal. That’s the plot—and he never deviates from it.
All this isn’t to criticize Nadal as a specialist, but to merely point out the type of player he is. Yes, Nadal reached the Wimbledon final last year and the year before, but don’t you get the sense that his performance was more a product of riding an incredible wave of momentum coming out of the French Open as opposed to exhibiting strong all-court skills. Traditionally, after Wimbledon, when virtually all events are played on outdoor hard or even faster indoor hard courts, Rafa’s record is less impressive.
Right now, if Nadal’s career ended, he’d go down as the game’s all-time best clay-court specialist. Unfortunately, history doesn’t always look kindly on players of his ilk (Bruguera, for one, got snubbed by the Hall of Fame this year) and are rarely considered among the pantheon of all-timers. If, like me, you’re a fan of Nadal’s game and the effort he puts into every single point, match, and tournament, you want to see him take a page out of Borg’s and Wilander’s playbook by winning a few Slams off the dirt. Otherwise, Nadal—as talented as he is, as passionate as he plays—runs the risk of being marginalized in the history books as a clay-court specialist. There are worse things to be called, of course, but Nadal and his fans desire a better fate.
James Martin is the editor-in-chief of TENNIS magazine