Part of what makes tennis such a difficult sport to master is the diversity of events within each season. Some tournaments are played indoors, while some are played outdoors; some are played in the hottest conditions, while others are much cooler.
The most difficult type of condition to adjust to, though, is undoubtedly the court surface.
Every season, players fight for the first Grand Slam of the year on the hard courts of Melbourne, Australia, in January. When April rolls around, the Masters event in Monte Carlo kicks off the clay season, which ultimately leads to the French Open. A short time later, players take on the Wimbledon grass courts, before reentering the hard courts of the U.S. Open series.
How do the greatest champions adjust to the changing surfaces fast enough to come up with the titles?
Well, it's definitely not easy. This season, we saw Novak Djokovic fall three times on the clay courts to Rafa Nadal, whom he had defeated in each of their previous seven encounters. We also saw Rafa falter as the grass courts challenged him; he fell in the third round of the Gerry Weber Open and then suffered a shocking defeat in the second round of Wimbledon.
Although the game's best champions are extremely skillful on any court surface, they certainly show that they excel on certain ones more than others. Here's a look at how Nadal, Roger Federer, and Djokovic rank on each of the three major surfaces.
Note: Rankings are in order from best to worst.
Hard: Djokovic, Federer, Nadal
Novak Djokovic has been the dominant player on the hard-court surface recently. Since the start of 2011, he has only suffered eight losses on the hard courts, and has won the last three hard-court Grand Slams.
When ranking the other two elite players, the evidence is in the Slam titles. Federer has won nine hard-court titles in the major events (four Australian Open titles, five U.S. Open titles), while Nadal has won only two (one of each).
Until Nadal wins more hard-court Slam titles, it will be hard to put him up there with two of the greatest players that the surface has seen in recent years.
Clay: Nadal, Djokovic, Federer
It's really difficult to argue against the opinion that Nadal is the top player on clay; his seven French Open titles and eight Monte Carlo titles provide indisputable evidence.
Even though Djokovic has yet to win a French Open title and Federer has one under his belt (2009), I give the Serb the advantage on this surface. He put on quite a show last season by taking down Nadal twice in a row on clay (Madrid and Rome), a seemingly impossible feat against such a dominant player. When Djokovic is on the top of his game, he is a bigger threat than Fed on the surface.
Grass: Federer, Djokovic, Nadal
Once again, the player at the top of this surface is clear; Federer's seven Wimbledon titles make it pretty obvious that he is the best grass-courter right now. Let's not forget the fact that he won one of those titles this year, at the age of 30.
It is very hard to set apart Nadal and Djokovic on this surface. Rafa does have two Wimbledon titles, compared to Djokovic's one. However, since the Serb's 2011 breakout, the two have only met once (2011 Wimbledon final), and Djokovic won that encounter.
I give Djokovic the slight edge on grass, simply because as of right now, he seems more solid. Nadal is coming off of two poor performances in grass events (as described above), and until he redeems himself, the Djoker has the lead.