Biggest Keys to Upsetting Rafael Nadal at the 2013 French Open

Patrick ClarkeCorrespondent IMay 21, 2013

ROME, ITALY - MAY 19:  Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a backhand against Roger Federer of Switzerland in their final match during day eight of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2013 at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre  on May 19, 2013 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Seven-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal is set to enter Roland Garros as the man to beat for the eighth straight year.

Having reached eight consecutive tournament finals since making his return from a seven-month layoff last February, and having won three straight tournaments on clay dating back to the Barcelona Open last month, Nadal enters the year's second Grand Slam as the overwhelming favorite on the men's side.

But what else is new?

Since 2005, Nadal has owned the red stuff in Paris, winning 52-of-53 singles matches at the French Open and dropping just 14 sets total over that time. 

Dominant doesn't even begin to describe what Rafa has been at Roland Garros since he entered the draw for the first time as a teenager eight years ago.

Therefore, it's time we take a closer look at what it's going to take for someone to upset Rafael Nadal on his favorite surface at his most beloved Grand Slam: the French Open.


Attack His Backhand

Rafa Nadal doesn't have many weaknesses in his game when it comes to clay, but if someone is going to truly challenge him and potentially send him home early this summer, they'll need to attack his backhand.

It's no secret that Nadal loves to utilize his heavy topspin forehand on clay, which often wears his opponents out and leads to unforced errors. When a player attacks his backhand, however, Rafa is forced to abandon the forehand for the time being and therefore becomes much less effective. 

Novak Djokovic utilized this strategy extremely well in the Monte Carlo final last month, upsetting Rafa in straight sets in Monaco.

There's no doubt that Nadal can strike winners with his backhand, but an opponent is going to have much more success against Nadal's two-handed backhand than he is against that ridiculous topspin forehand.


Dominate on Serve

To beat Nadal in three-out-of-five sets, a player must first hold their serve against the King of Clay. And in order to do that, they'll need to fire accurate first serves into the box, controlling the point and putting Nadal under pressure early.

No matter how talented a player might be—like Rafa on clay—when forced to chase the ball down rather than being able to meet and attack it, that player is at a severe disadvantage. 

Plus, Rafa has won 56 percent of his second-serve return points this season as opposed to just 36 percent of his first-serve return points. Clearly, putting strong first serves into the box against Nadal is crucial in order to have a shot at holding serve against him and prolonging the match.

An opponent will need to break Nadal's serve at some point in order to the pull the upset, but unless that player holds serve comfortably, it won't matter.


Shorten Points

Another key to beating Nadal on clay, especially at the French Open where a player will have to win three sets in order to advance, is shortening points.

The longer a rally lasts, advantage Rafa.

There are a number of ways to shorten points, whether it's going for big aces during service games or coming to the net quickly and more frequently. Attacking the net is certainly a risky game plan, but one with the potential to work out.

While Rafa does possess amazing touch at the net, phenomenal passing shots and the ability to lob an opponent to death when he comes charging to the net, this tactic is one guaranteed way to shorten points, for better or worse.

It's unlikely that anyone is going to be able to ace Nadal consistently on the slower-playing clay, so taking a more aggressive serve-and-volley approach is the better bet.

It's been four years since Robin Soderling pulled off arguably the greatest upset ever at the French Open, beating Nadal in four sets in the round of 16 in 2009 before advancing all the way to the final. While Rafa hasn't lost before or since at Roland Garros, at least we know he can be beaten.


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