The number of people who believe that Rafael Nadal is not the greatest clay court player is going down significantly as we journey further and further into the Spaniard's career.
The approaching French Open will help out those undecided tennis fans formulate a sort of verdict—at least for the next 12 months until the next Roland Garros title.
Rafa is being tipped as the favorite to capture the 2012 French Open which starts on May 28th. Having won clay events in Rome, Barcelona, and Monte Carlo, he has no intention of losing in Paris this year, which, if he wins, would be his seventh French Open and his eleventh grand slam title.
No one is really predicting any major issues for Rafa until the semis or the final (except maybe for a potential encounter with Milos Raonic in the fourth round.) So I will spare you for that part, but here is what he needs to do in later stages of the tournament against better players.
Fortunately for Rafa, consistency isn't the biggest issue (it's no coincidence that Rafa is the player he is because of consistency.) While the likes of Federer struggle to keep it in the court at Roland Garros versus Rafa, gaining a reputation for often shanking the ball, Nadal somehow managed to land virtually every single ball in.
This is one of the points in which Rafa may need to alter his clay game a little bit against bigger players. It seems that he is so bent on getting the next ball in, that pace can be neglected.
For example, though this year's scorelines against Djokovic on clay conveyed fairly comprehensive wins for the King of Clay, the matches themselves weren't as one-sided. Novak enjoyed most of the control in the game, and for the viewer, it looked like the outcome of the match was in Djokovic's hands, not Nadal's.
What that means is that Rafa wasn't pushing the Serb enough, standing five or six feet behind the baseline, letting Novak dictate play. Fate must have been on his side, because Djokovic was missing seemingly routine shots—at least ones that he could have made on his average day last year.
The chances are that this strategy won't fly in a major, especially the one that Novak is yearning for most of all. As all slam winners need to be, Djokovic is a clutch player and will get better and better as the pressure mounts. In the potential yet probable final encounter between these two, Rafa should undoubtedly stand closer to the baseline and be more aggresive, and take Novak's shots on the rise.
This is something that Rafa doesn't do against lesser players, but against Federer and Djokovic in particular, this can hurt him.
One important reason as to why Djokovic could break Nadal a lot last year was because of two aspects of Rafa's serve. It's no secret that Novak is the best returner in the game, and against Rafa, he had a brilliant strategy.
For a few years, Nadal didn't have a great serve, but it started to pick up at the end of 2010. It ditched him in early 2011, but was back for Wimbledon and the US Open of last year. In the finals of those two majors, Novak seemed to realize that in order for Nadal to generate so much power on his first serve, he needed to use his body a lot more to jump into the court (more so than most players.)
He returned accordingly: rather than trying to whack the ball into the corner, the Serb used Nadal's pace to stroke the ball back deep right down the middle of the court. Since Nadal served hard and jumped forward a lot, he didn't have the time to get back and adjust to Djokovic's returns, so he would have to pick up shots from his feet, giving Novak the control over all of the points.
A possible remedy to this problem would be to jump less, therefore compromising pace, but he would still manage to avoid making shoelace pickups every second ball on his serve. Of course, he shouldn't slow it down too much, but another thing that reinforces this idea is that if Djokovic tries to kill the return, the clay partially neutralizes his biggest shots, giving Nadal more time to react.
These are some possible things to implement against Djokovic in particular; now here is how Rafa can overcome Federer.
Of the two match-ups, I think everyone would give Nadal more of a favorite against Federer, because of the career head-to-head, which Rafa leads 18-10. Of those, 14 have been on clay and five have been at Roland Garros. This gives Nadal the statistical edge, without even considering that Federer is much older and the Spaniard seems to be in his prime.
That being said, Nadal's biggest key would be to stick to his strategy, the infamous heavy-topspin-ball-to-the-backhand strategy.
Straying from his usual game plan against Federer has not always yielded optimal results—he has dug himself into deep holes because going forehand-to-forehand favors Roger. If he sticks to his common tactic, success is almost guaranteed, because history is favoring him.
It goes without saying that Rafa needs to be mentally strong against Fed-Ex, since he seems to go down early against his nemesis (even though he normally picks his level up a few games in.)
I think these two will pose him the biggest problems in a potential matchup with either of them in the final.
Nadal should be able to get to the fourth round without dropping a set. If he faces Milos Raonic, it's entirely possible that he loses a set, but I don't see Raonic scoring the major upset. From then on, I see him having no problems until the semis, and even there, it's highly unlikely that Murray can play well enough to beat him.
I think Djokovic will get to play Rafa in the final. If he does whatever is mentioned above, his chances of winning are very high, and even if he doesn't do that, Monte Carlo and Rome prove that his winning is possible.
I don't see Rafa being stopped, losing two sets (one to Raonic and one to Djokovic) en route to his French Open title defense.