Woodbridge: Can anyone challenge Rafael Nadal on clay?

Published by Todd Woodbridge

Rafael Nadal has won his last 36 sets on clay courts; Getty Images
There are three players capable of beating Rafael Nadal in the coming weeks, but who is putting in the work to try and dethrone the king of clay?

The claycourt season is off and running and it’s already a case of déjà vu, with Rafael Nadal dominating from the outset on his way to an 11th Monte Carlo title.

Rafa is truly remarkable, but should we really expect him to walk in after a prolonged injury break and win his 11th Barcelona and Roland Garros titles as well?

The answer should be no. He will though– if this younger generation don’t hurry up and look at ways to try and break down his game.

It’s worrying how players seem beaten before they even walk on court against Rafa. With the exception of Nick Kyrgios, most players are overawed and lack any strategy; they’re just happy to be on court in the company of the great man.

Who realistically can stand up and make that mental and tactical adjustment to their game this claycourt season and put some pressure on Rafa?

There are only three players who I see have the ability to stop Rafa from completing yet another sweep of the year’s big claycourt titles – Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and Dominic Thiem.

Djokovic still needs more match play to build his game back to its best. If he can stay fit through this sequence of tournaments he has a winning head-to-head record over Rafa (26-24), and that brings its own confidence to the court that so many lack.

As for Del Potro, he’s not scared to take Rafa on and hit through him. He can flatten his shots and take time away from the Spaniard. The issue for Delpo is his two-handed backhand. Obviously that has been trouble because of his wrist injuries and he’s had to use the slice more than he would like. On clay that’s a bigger problem.

The two-hander crosscourt is crucial to opening up the court against Rafa; that’s the one shot Djokovic has that really does damage against him. Del Potro has to play aggressively against Rafa on clay, as you can’t let him dictate and start manoeuvering you around the court.

Rafael Nadal: How formidable is the king of clay in 2018?

The youngest of this trio is Dominic Thiem, and he’s the best hope among the younger generation. However, he faces two disadvantages. One is Rafa’s ability to expose his single-handed backhand with the left-handed topspin forehand – the same tactic that worried Roger Federer for all those years.

The second issue for Thiem is the same problem I see with all the young guns – I worry about their lack of ability and investment in improving tactical awareness during a match. In the past 12 months I’ve not seen Thiem make inroads to improve his game on all surfaces. He’s won on grass, yes, but he’s playing the same tennis on all surfaces.

You could use the analogy of what Rafa did to adapt and improve on grass – he stood up on the baseline and returned there, he changed his court positioning, he learned to win at net. Yet Thiem, and other young players, are not doing this. They’re playing the same tennis, every day, on every surface.

There is a homogenised group of players emerging from the same cookie-cutter, lacking tactical awareness and feel.

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There has to be variation in your game. No matter what opponent it is out there on court, there’s a part of their game that they’re not comfortable with. There’s an area of their game that will break down.

Does that come from playing a low slice? Is it throwing the ball up high over their shoulder? Is it attacking their second serve to build pressure and bring a double fault on a crucial point?

I’ve named three players who could potentially challenge the king of clay, but for the sake of some exciting tennis, hopefully someone else will step out from the pack. It’s hard, but you have to have the guts to make progressive change while competing. That’s the key.

If nobody does, it’s hard to see anything other than Rafa winning an incredible 11th Roland Garros title in June.

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