Rafael Nadal: The Accidental Champion
I believe that Rafael Nadal is very probably the most fortunate champion in the history of tennis. The conditions in which the sport has been played through the period of Nadal’s career have largely conspired to inflate his achievements to a level which he would not have attained had he been playing in an earlier era - the 90s, for instance. There are really four conditions that I would say constitute Nadal’s good fortune.
The first is the overall slowing down of the tennis surfaces, and the slowing of Wimbledon in particular. It has been well-publicised that in response to the ‘ace-fests’ of the 1990s, tennis administrators have seen it as necessary to slow down the surfaces generally in an attempt to make the sport more ‘watchable’. As a result, the previous lightning-quick surfaces that were seen in the 1990s such as carpet and fast grasscourts, have all but disappeared. It is of course patent that Nadal’s game-style is much more suited to slower surfaces and this overall slowing of the game has hence worked in his favour.
The most striking example of this is of course Nadal’s victory at Wimbledon, a tournament which has traditionally been dominated by serve-volleyers but in recent years has become to be dominated by baseline players. Certainly baseline players have won Wimbledon in the past – Agassi, Borg and Hewitt being the primary examples. However, when Borg and Agassi won Wimbledon, they both serve-volleyed a very high proportion on their first serves, taking them outside of their traditional game-style. Lendl completely altered his game to a serve-volley style during Wimbledon in an ultimately failed attempt to win the tournament. These players’ efforts should be contrasted to that of Nadal. Because of the slow condition of the grasscourts in this era, it was not necessary for Nadal to adopt serve-volley or other elements of traditional grasscourt strategy to any great extent in order to win the tournament. Nor did he need to face any great serve-volley players in his path to winning Wimbledon. The great majority of players Nadal has faced at Wimbledon play to his strengths – that is, engaging with him in baseline rallies, as the conditions at the tournament render attacking the net an unsound option.
Some people would raise Hewitt in rebuttal to this point, saying that he too did not adopt a serve-volley style in order to win Wimbledon. This is of course true, but Hewitt grew up on grasscourts and utilises a flat-ball counterpunching style, a style much more suited to the fast courts at Wimbledon than Nadal’s game-style. Moreover, the 2002 Wimbledon was an anomaly for many other reasons aside from Hewitt’s victory.
Some might argue that if Wimbledon has been slowed down, then Roland Garros has been sped up, and this has worked against Nadal. This is of course a valid argument. My response to it is, yes, Roland Garros may have sped up, but the competition on clay is nevertheless so slight, that this has really not had much of an impact upon Nadal’s utter domination of the surface.
This lack of competition on clay is really the second condition in today’s tennis environment that has led to the inflation of Nadal’s achievements. This issue has been canvassed in-depth recently on this board, so I don’t want to beat a dead horse so to speak by going too in-depth in discussion. Suffice to say, myself, and many other people, are of the opinion that the current level of play on clay is of a significantly lower standard than that which has been seen in previous eras of the sport. The tactical standard displayed by today’s players on clay is significantly less than, for instance, the greats of the 90s and early 00s – the quality of Muster, Kuerten, Bruguera, Mantilla, and even Courier is not seen anymore, except of course, in Nadal himself. He is undoubtedly the only player on clay today who measures up to those greats of years past. No one can deny that Nadal is indeed a superb clay-court player, and would undoubtedly have won Roland Garros in any era. However the title of ‘GOAT on clay’ which has been foisted on him by some has been attained by inflation of his achievements resulting from an overall lack of quality on the surface from his competitors.
The third condition which I would believe has contributed to Nadal’s being the most fortunate champion in tennis history is racquet technology. Nadal, more than any other player, has benefitted from the increases in racquet power that are now present in recent years. Take, for example, players such as Federer, Hewitt and Murray. All these players are so technically sound that it would be possible for them to still play with probably some degree of success with a wooden racquet. It would, on the other hand, be almost impossible for anyone to hit Nadal’s forehand, his most lethal shot, with a wooden racquet, and the effectiveness of his counterpunching game, relying as it does on his hitting powerful strokes from deep behind the baseline, would of course be significantly reduced. Of course, we do not know what game-style Nadal would have developed with less modern equipment. Nevertheless, we can say that his current game-style is largely dependent upon newer racquet technology – more so, undoubtedly, than the majority of modern-day tennis players. I’m not saying that this is illegitimate or wrong – all sports are of course dependent on technology. Nevertheless, it is a condition which has contributed to Nadal’s success.
And the final piece of good fortune running through Nadal’s career is that, time and time again, he has been able to meet Roger Federer in the finals of grand slam tournaments. It might be argued that it is silly to suggest that meeting the supposed GOAT in the finals of grand slams is good luck. However, even the most casual of tennis fans should be able to recognise that tennis is essentially a game of match-ups, and that Nadal is a bad match-up for Federer. Playing Federer in 7/8 of his grand slam finals has, quite simply, been a piece of good fortune for Nadal. He has only had to play one other player in all the many grand slam finals he has reached, a highly unlikely statistic in tennis history. Indeed, it is worth noting that Mariano Puerta – Nadal’s only other opponent in a grand slam final – tested Nadal more in that Roland Garros final than Federer ever did Nadal in any of their own French Open finals.
Now, one rebuttal which I have seen raised to such arguments as the above is, ‘Why do you only attribute this supposed good fortune to Nadal and not Federer?’ For example, I have often seen people argue, ‘Federer won most of his Wimbledons on “slow grass”, so why is that not lucky for him?’
I will say, firstly, that to some extent Federer has been fortunate as well. In particular, I think it unlikely that Federer would have won Roland Garros in the 1990s with the level of competition on clay back then. However, the other conditions mentioned above certainly do not operate in Federer’s favour. Federer, an attacking player with a game well-suited to traditional grasscourts, would likely prefer Wimbledon to be faster than it is now. Indeed, in 2003 he proved that he can win the tournament whilst serve-volleying on his first serve. His game would likely increase in effectiveness on a faster court. Of course, he would have to contend with other players playing better at the net, but would be less threatened by ‘slower-court’ players such as Nadal. Moreover, Federer would prefer Roland Garros to be slower. His success at Hamburg in the past evidences that slow clay is more suitable for his game.
Another rebuttal that might be made is that Nadal has been unlucky, particularly with injuries. However, I would refute such an argument out of hand. Obviously, there are different kinds of injuries – some caused by bad luck, some by lack of fitness, and some simply by an unsustainable game-style. Nadal’s injuries are clearly an example of the latter. They should not be classed as unfortunate.
I do not mean this post to suggest that Nadal is not a superb tennis player. Of course he is – after all, you can only play in the conditions which you are given. However, his achievements have undoubtedly been largely inflated by the fortunate conditions in which he has played. There have been other striking examples of good fortune for legendary players in tennis history – for example, Agassi’s draw in the 1999 French Open. However, never before have so many factors conspired together to produce great achievements as has happened in the case of Nadal. Out of all the many great players in along whom he will stand in tennis history, he is, for me, “The Accidental Champion”. And I hope that some discerning tennis fans will indeed recognise him as such.