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French Open Men's Champion 2012: What Makes Rafael Nadal the "King of Clay"?

Martin BaldridgeCorrespondent IIJanuary 7, 2017

French Open Men's Champion 2012: What Makes Rafael Nadal the "King of Clay"?

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    Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player of all time, having won a record seven French Opens and 36 ATP titles on the surface, but what is it that makes him the “King of Clay"?

    TECHNIQUE

    Technically Nadal’s game possesses no significant weaknesses and any that do exist are hidden by the strengths of the other areas of his game.

    Rafa doesn’t have the greatest serve or possibly even the best backhand, but that doesn’t matter much on a clay court where the serve is often used merely as a way to start the point. Furthermore, the slow-bouncing surface allows Nadal to cover most of the baseline with his unstoppable forehand.

Tactics

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    Tactically Rafa plays a relatively defensive, high percentage game, waiting for the opportunity to attack, control, and then finish the point with a forehand or easy put-away volley or overhead.

    As early as possible in each point, Rafa anchors himself on the right hand side of the baseline and then sets about bludgeoning his opponent to death with his ferocious forehand. Once again, unlike on faster hard or grass courts, the slow, red clay court surface allows him the time to be able to do this.

    It seemed that the only way to stop Rafa from executing this simple but hugely effective tactic was to hit wide and at a sharp angle, cross court to his forehand. Novak Djokovic, and to a lesser extent Andy Murray, both used this tactic in matches against the Spaniard in 2011.

    But this year Rafa won the titles at Roland Garros, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome without losing set, and on the red clay surface is basically unbeatable.

    It’s one thing to have a winning tactic or game plan against the “King of Clay” and another to be able to execute it! 

Physical

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    There can’t be many fitter tennis players than Rafael Nadal. From an early age his coach and uncle, Toni, along with his other uncle, Miguel Angel, taught their nephew the importance of working hard, putting in the practice hours, and basically learning to endure and overcome whatever situation arose on the tennis court.

    Over the years Rafa has had to overcome serious foot and knee injuries and as a result tends not to practice as long anymore. As a schoolboy Rafa routinely played up to six hours a day. Nowadays though, he rarely trains more than four hours daily, tending to spend the extra time in the gym for injury prevention and maintenance.

    Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer all claim that hard courts are the most physically demanding to play on. Clay puts less stress on the joints, and though the points are longer than on other surfaces, the twisting, turning and changing of direction on a clay court are met with less resistance than on a hard court. 

    Bearing in mind his history of injuries, this once again makes clay a better surface for Rafa to play on.

Mental

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    Without question what makes Rafael Nadal the greatest clay court player of all time is his unbelievable strength of character.

    As a youngster his uncle Toni trained him in much the same way that young boys were treated in ancient Sparta. Rafa’s family were often appalled by Toni’s methods, which included making him train in hot weather without water breaks, never praising any of his achievements, continually telling his nephew that he wasn’t good enough, that he hadn’t won anything yet and needed to improve every aspect of his game.

    But how much of Rafa’s strength of character came from his uncle and how much from the man himself?

    From a young age Rafa was obsessed by sport, whether it be soccer or tennis. Defeat for Rafa at anything was nothing less than a total disaster. But win or lose, Rafa’s family never made him feel any more than a normal child and told him that he must always respect his opponent no matter what the outcome.

    So on one side there was uncle Toni driving his nephew forward and on the other, the family telling Rafa that everything would be all right and that he should enjoy his life and concentrate on being a good person.

    And there in the middle of all this was Rafa, taking it all in, enduring, listening and developing the strength of character which manifests itself as the—"King of Clay”.

    Seven-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player of all time and the undisputed "King of Clay"!

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