When we look at Rafa Nadal on clay, there are a few key points that make him better than everyone else. One is movement and athleticism. Another is technique; his ability to shape a shot, his defensive skills, and his knowledge about when to attack and when to defend. But mentality is probably the most crucial thing for a clay courter like Rafa – having patience and refusing to miss.
These factors have been the cornerstone of Rafa’s success, giving him an aura of invincibility. Anyone who plays him knows that they will not get any free points – that they will have to leave everything on the court in order to beat him – because he has the best endurance of any athlete that plays tennis.
Rafa also has the benefit of being left-handed. Had he been right-handed with the same game style, he would not have dominated players like Roger Federer in the way that he has.
His left-handedness helps to open up the court, and that advantage becomes even more apparent on clay where he can whip heavy short balls cross court or get the ball jumping up high to the single-handed backhand. It has been a huge asset to him, and one of the keys to him dominating on that surface.
We call Rafa a clay specialist, but the significance of being a ‘specialist’ is not as acute as it may have been 20 years ago. The game has become more neutralised across all surfaces.
That said, clay court tennis is still like a game of chess. You always need a strategy for how to beat your opponent, and if you’re not beating him one way you need to work out where his weaknesses are and change your game – that’s where the patience and game development comes in.
It sounds obvious, but clay court specialists come from clay court nations – that’s where a player’s game development begins. When we talk about development, in Australia we now have more clay courts for kids to train on and learn about offence and defence. Traditionally, though, Australian players have always been aggressive and come forward due to the faster surfaces (hard and grass) that our games were developed on.
As a player who prefers faster courts, it used to take me six- to eight-weeks to start playing my best tennis on clay (I’d usually get there just as the season was finishing). I used to love constructing points, but I would have to work on getting more shape on my forehand, more of a kick serve than slice, and more depth control off my backhand. All of that before we started talking about patience. Therein lies the fact that I didn’t have the development on the surface as a young player. I liked playing on it, but for me it was the hardest surface to do well on.
I wrote a few weeks ago (before the clay season started) that I felt Rafa would win Roland Garros and I’m even more convinced that he will. There will be people who challenge him – I think Wawrinka stands out as a dangerous player, and perhaps Novak will arrive at Roland Garros with less pressure on him so he can free wheel it a bit more. But, for me, Rafa is the undoubted favourite.
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