Rafael Nadal’s feat of clay
As the French Open approaches, the Spaniard has a chance to prove he is the best clay-court player ever to grace tennis
To bestow the title of “greatest ever” on anybody in a particular field is a process fraught with the danger of laying yourself wide open to criticism. Yet in saying that Rafael Nadal is already the best clay-court player tennis has seen, I am considerably more confident than I ever was when approaching the net to volley on the crumbly French Open surface, knowing my precarious footing could leave me flat on my face.
Sure, people are going to point out that Bjorn Borg has won twice as many French Open titles. Many will also say Nadal has the potential to equal or even beat this record, but that’s for the future and I cannot disagree.
Others will also want to tell me that he’s not yet ascended to the world No 1 spot, but we are not talking about a year-round ranking, taking in performances indoors and out on hard courts, grass and carpet, as well as clay. We are simply examining ability on the terre battue, that slippery red stuff that has proved so difficult for a host of other players who are revered as all-time greats and will again drive hugely gifted players to distraction during the next fortnight.
I admire Roger Federer hugely for his game and his accomplishments, and if he could win just one French Open title he would not only legitimise those claims that he is the best tennis player of all time but also earn a place in my clay-court top 10. Until that victory, he falls just short.
I can make a valid judgment only on those players I have come up against, practised with or watched perform. I’m sure that classic French trio of Jean Borotra, René Lacoste and Henri Cochet were pretty impressive around the courts of Paris 80 years ago, but few can deny that the game has moved on apace since their days.
Tennis has evolved greatly even in the past three decades since the days of Borg and Guillermo Vilas, two magnificent performers I always believed would remain sacrosanct as clay-court gods. Yet sitting watching spellbound at Hamburg last weekend as Nadal overcame first Novak Djokovic and then Federer to claim the one revered clay-court title that hitherto had eluded him, I decided the muscular young man from Majorca eclipses anything I had previously seen on the dirt.
The advancement of technology has a lot to do with my thinking and if Borg, Vilas or even Cochet had been able to play with the rackets and strings available to today’s players, their magnificent achievements on clay might have merited even greater superlatives. But this is one of the true gifts of Nadal; he is strong enough to play with a racket that could easily have been health-threatening to other players.
I first confronted Nadal when he was a young upstart sent out on court with me to play an exhibition. He took me by surprise and I realised his talent was something special. It wasn’t until last weekend that I fully realised how awe-inspiring he can be. Just watching his style of play made me realise I had been doing it wrong on clay for the past 25 years.
I am a firm believer that anybody who prevails on clay in this day and age has been brought up on the stuff, and that’s the case with Nadal. His play is innate, and whereas some players, myself included, believe they have to adapt for the surface, no such thoughts go through his mind. It’s natural, even down to the on-court sliding which is such an integral part of the clay-courter’s game. I had always believed you had to slide into the shot on clay, but watching him closely on a few points made me realise I was wrong. He slides out of them, after the point of contact. In doing so, he is able to explode into the next shot.
Technically, he plays the game differently. Face-on forehands, employing an open stance with the chest effectively parallel to the baseline, have been the way of the world for many players in recent years, but Nadal has also mastered the face-on backhand and this is the shot that makes him so unbeatable on clay. You have to take into account that, unlike the majority of other players, he can slide leading with either foot.
Most of us mere mortals favour one foot or the other, but not him. In addition, he is basically right-handed but plays as a leftie, which means he can exert such control in the double-fisted backhand with his supporting hand.
The upshot is that driving Nadal five or six feet wide of the court on to his backhand side - a position where the likes of Federer or Djokovic would normally think their opponents are at their most vulnerable - only serves to put him into his position of maximum threat. Even patrolling 10 yards behind the baseline, he can summon sufficient power to blast a pass down the line, lethal to any player advancing to the net in the thought he is about to finish off the point, or whip a top-spun angled shot across the court if the other guy is standing too far back.
Nadal moves so well on the clay because he is built for it. He’s got that big strong bottom that gives him such superb explosive power, and his legs are so strong. There were worries about his knees at the US Open last year but clay is a more forgiving surface on the joints than the hard cement, and there don’t appear to have been any real problems this year. A blister proved his undoing in Rome, but it’s better to happen then than over the next fortnight.
Opponents will take some hope from the fact there are still some areas of the Nadal game that can be improved. His serve remains not quite the forceful weapon it might be and his second delivery is occasionally ripe for plundering. Too often he falls into the habit of dropping the ball short, leaving him vulnerable to backspun dropshots. Caution, however, is necessary when his record at Roland Garros reads played 21, won 21.
Nadal must believe that as long as he maintains his supreme standard, nobody has a chance of beating him and denying him a fourth straight French Open title. Deep down, Federer and Djokovic are equally aware of the fact and can only hope to capitalise on an off-day, and Nadal just doesn’t seem to have those at Roland Garros. I’m convinced that in a fortnight’s time plenty more people will be agreeing with me that Rafael Nadal is the sport’s greatest clay-court player.