• Andrew Starc

5 reasons why Rafael Nadal is so good on clay

Rafael is so good on clay that he's made the French Open a tad boring.

Since his debut in 2005, the Spaniard has won the premier clay-court tournament almost every year. Those he didn't, injury was to blame.

So predictable is Nadal's annual triumph at Roland Garros that, other than to find out who he'll destroy in the final, there's little reason to watch.

"Some say beating Rafa over five sets on clay is the toughest thing in sport – not just tennis. I would agree with that," says notoriously cantankerous 7-time Grand Slam winner, John McEnroe.

Even Novak Djokovic, who regularly dismantles Nadal on other surfaces, poses little threat on clay. In the 2020 French Open final, the Serb lost in straight-sets, including six-love in the first.

Roger Federer fares even worse. The Swiss has lost all six of his matches against Nadal at Roland Garros, including four finals.

How good is Rafael Nadal on clay? Just see his French Open and clay-court records.

Of his 86 career titles, Rafael Nadal has won 60 on clay, including 13 French Open titles. Bjorn Borg, history's second most successful clay-court player, racked up only half that tally, winning 30 titles on the surface, including 6 French Opens.

Nadal's clay-court success seems even greater when compared to contemporary rivals Federer and Djokovic. Respectively, they have won 11 and 15 titles on the surface, including a French Open each.

Here are Rafael Nadal's most impressive clay-court records:

  • Highest overall clay court match win percentage – 91.75% (445–40 match record)

  • 13 consecutive clay court titles (2005–2007)

  • Longest single surface win streak on any surface – 81 (2005–2007)

  • Won 50 consecutive clay court sets

  • 52 consecutive victories in semifinals on a single surface (2004–2014)

  • 25 clay court titles without dropping a set

  • Only player to complete the 'Clay Slam' the French Open plus all three clay court Masters 1000 events (Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid) in the same calendar year (2010)

Rafael Nadal French Open trophy

And his French Open records:

  • 13 French Open titles. No other player, male or female, has won more than 8 titles at a single major.

  • French Open highest match winning percentage – 98.00% (100–2 match record)

  • 5 consecutive French Open titles (2010–2014)

  • 4 French Open titles without losing a set – 2008, 2010, 2017, 2020

  • 39 consecutive match wins at French Open (2010–2015)

  • Never taken to five sets in the final

These records won't be beaten any time soon, if ever. So what makes Rafael Nadal so good on clay?

1. Rafael Nadal's powerful top-spin

The top spin Rafael Nadal generates with his forehand is one of his most potent weapons, on any surface. The Spaniard averages 3,200 rotations per minute. Federer and Djokovic, by comparison, average 2,700 rpm. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi only managed 1,800 rpm.

"More topspin causes the ball to drop and come down into the bounce on a steeper angle of incidence to the court than a ball hit at the same speed with less spin. That in turn causes the bounce to be higher," said John Yandell, the editor and founder of Tennisplayer.net, to the Wall Street Journal.

The high bounce of Nadal's shots make the ball more difficult for his opponents to control, giving Nadal ample time to set up a return shot via his forehand, which is far more potent than his backhand.

Clay only serves to amplify his top-spin advantage. The ball skids far less than on other surfaces, making it bounce far higher. Nadal exploits this to great effect, especially since he is left-handed.

His cross-court lasso forehand, which he delivers to the backhand-side of his right-handed opponents, is famously successful on all surfaces. The extra bounce on clay makes it even more so.

It's notable that out of the ATP Tour's three clay-court Masters tournaments – Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid Nadal has had far less success at the latter. Why? The Spanish capital is almost 2,200 ft above sea level, which means the ball has less top spin and bounces lower.

2. Clay lessons the impact on Rafael Nadal's injury-prone knee

Rafael Nadal has suffered knee injuries throughout his career. At 21, he was diagnosed with patellar tendonitis in both knees. The condition causes inflammation of the tendon that attaches the kneecap to the shinbone.

The 'King of Clay's' recurrent knee injuries have forced him to quit many matches and forgo playing for long stretches of time. In addition to time-off, Nadal has treated the condition with platelet-rich plasma (PRP), to mixed results.

Nadal has also dealt with pain and swelling caused by Kohler's disease – a rare, congenital bone defect of the foot. At age 17, doctors discovered the navicular bone in his left foot had not completely ossified during early infancy. Nadal was almost forced to retire, before a custom-built orthotic shoe saved his career.

The shoe, however, caused the Spaniard to apply increased stress to the tendon in his left knee. In 2009, Nadal was diagnosed with tendonitis – the year he famously lost to Robin Soderling in the French Open final, in perhaps the greatest upset in tennis history.

3. Rafael Nadal grew up playing on clay

In the warmer climes of Mediterranean Europe, clay is the most popular surface. Especially in Spain, which has around 100,000 red-clay courts.

The Iberian nation has produced a long line of world class clay-court players, including Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, and Juan Carlos Ferrero. It's the most successful nation at Roland Garros during the Open Era, claiming 21 titles.

"Roland Garros has always been the most special tournament for us," said Joan Solsona, a Spanish tennis journalist, in an interview with the BBC.

"So it affects the way you prepare as a tennis player – you want to be good on clay. Playing and learning on clay is natural for Spanish people."

Majorca-born Nadal first played on the surface at age four.

4. Rafael Nadal's movement and court coverage

While Rafael Nadal's speed may have diminished with age and successive injuries, he's still one of the fastest players on the ATP Tour. This has made his court coverage one of the best in the sport's history.

At the French Open, Nadal can put his superior court coverage to full effect. Not only can he slide, but the 'Master of Mud' can retrieve balls deep behind the baseline.

The Court Philippe Chatrier main court is 32 feet behind the baseline – five feet more than Wimbledon’s Centre Court and the U.S. Open’s Arthur Ashe Stadium. This extra space is also amplified by the slower ball speed on clay.

“It’s obvious that a big court helps a little bit more my game and for the opponent is a little bit more difficult to attack, to see the clear winner,” said Nadal.

“For an opponent playing against Nadal on Chatrier, it seems that you have to put double as much effort than any other court in the world, because it’s so much space and it feels like you can’t make a winner. He’s getting [to] every single ball.” said Novak Djokovic.

Below: Nadal's insane cross-court coverage on full display

5. Big serves are neutralized on clay

If Nadal has a weakness compared to his top rivals, it's his relatively slower serve. On hard and grass courts, this means his big serving opponents can gain a critical advantage.

On clay, however, the slower speed of the surface neutralizes big serves to an extent, meaning they can't rely on the serve and return to outmatch Nadal. Longer rallies therefore result more often – an area of the game where Nadal is one of, if not the best in the world.

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