Rafael Nadal is called the King of Clay, and for good reason.
In the 2012 season, Nadal has taken home three titles—one in Monte-Carlo, one in Barcelona and one in Italy—proving that he is simply better on clay than he is on hard courts.
Let’s compare his play on both surfaces.
Each calendar year begins on hard courts, and for Nadal this year, that meant playing in four tournaments: Qatar ExxonMobil Open, Australian Open, BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.
In the three ATP World Tour tournaments, Rafa was only able to reach the semifinals before losing.
Clearly Nadal knows his way around a hard court—he won the 2009 Australian Open and the 2010 U.S. Open—but as of late it has been breaking him down physically.
In Miami for the Sony Ericsson Open, Rafa was set to face off against Andy Murray in the semifinals, but had to withdraw because of knee problems. Hard courts are obviously not as soft as clay and therefore not as forgiving on injuries.
What’s interesting, however, is that only 12 days after withdrawing in Miami on a hard court, Rafa headed to Monte Carlo where he took home the title easily, not losing a single set in the entire tournament.
This shows just how better suited Nadal is for clay rather than hard courts. Not only is dirt a better fit for Rafa physically, but it also matches his style of play.
It’s a symbiosis of sorts: clay helps Rafa physically; Rafa’s game is perfect for clay.
If we break down Rafa’s style of play, we can clearly see why he is so good on clay.
Nadal is famous for his killer topspin, lefty-forehand and efficient net game. All of these tools are traits that great clay court players have. Clay takes pace off the ball, so by adding topspin, Nadal’s shots kick up and cause his opponents to retreat to the baseline and revert back to defense. Nadal can then come in behind the ball to finish off a weak hit with either a well-placed drop shot or a penetrating volley.
After the perils of the hard court season, Nadal welcomed the beginning of clay court play by using these weapons to win three of the four big clay court tournaments. The only anomaly was when Nadal lost in Madrid in the third round to Fernando Verdasco.
The reason for the loss?
The clay was blue.
Most people might think that the only difference between red and blue clay is the color, but there is more too it than that. Blue clay is much faster and sometimes a little too slippery. The organizers of the tournament in Madrid changed to blue clay to allow the viewers follow the ball more easily, but while they may have made the fans happy, they have outraged the players.
Nadal was not alone in his criticism of the new surface, in fact Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic both expressed negative feelings toward the blue clay.
After the minor slip on blue clay, Nadal went on to kill it on red clay by easily winning the title in Rome, not dropping a single set.
Nadal will take on Juan Monaco Monday in the fourth round at the 2012 French Open, and Rafa should win and continue to make his way to the finals. Nadal has won six French Opens, and if he wins at Roland Garros this year, he will break Bjorn Borg’s record for most French Open titles.
The final rundown: Nadal is hands-down better on clay than he is on hard courts—just as long as the clay isn’t blue.