Rafael Nadal is a fantastic tennis player by any measure and on any surface. But on clay, especially the red clay of Roland Garros, he is the most dominant the sport has ever seen.
His record seven French Open championships and his performance at Roland Garros over the past two weeks—which has him poised for his record eighth title on Sunday—absolutely testify to that fact.
Nadal was built for the clay game both mentally and physically, and his career record of 58-1 at Roland Garros bares it out. He has the mental toughness required on the difficult surface.
His athleticism is off the charts and allows him to extend points when others cannot. The heavy topspin action on his forehand is a true weapon on the slower surface.
Indeed, just about every aspect of what Nadal is, as an athlete and as a tennis player, fits the clay surface and makes besting him such a difficult task—even when he is not at his best. This year alone Nadal has won six titles and is 42-2, with most of those wins coming on the sticky stuff.
Those attributes will all be on display Sunday as Nadal takes on David Ferrer in the finals of the 2013 French Open. If Rafa is to win his record eighth title in a single Grand Slam event and beat Ferrer for the 21st time in 26 meetings, the very aspects that make him so good on clay will have to be at the ready.
Several months ago, Ferrer told ESPN's Greg Garber why he thinks Nadal is so dominant on clay.
"Because," Ferrer said, "he's an unbelievable player. He has all the shots. He has good receive, good forehand with topspin, [the] physical. For my mind, he's the best of the ATP. And in clay, he has more time for [sic] to hit the ball, no?"
Yes, he does, and when those attributes come together on the red clay of Roland Garros, as Ferrer is likely to see Sunday, that true dominance is something to watch.
So, what is it exactly that makes Nadal so dominant and difficult to beat on the clay surface?
Speed and Athleticism
Imagine how frustrating it must be to hit the perfect shot that’s destined to be a winner only to see the ball coming right back to you. Every opponent, including Novak Djokovic in Friday’s semifinal, feels that frustration and disappointment when they face Nadal on clay surfaces.
Nadal’s court coverage is simply amazing on clay, and his speed and footwork allow him to get to balls that would elude most players. That attribute allows Nadal to not only win points he was thought out of, but to extend matches beyond what his opponents would prefer to play.
Because he returns so many balls, he makes his opponent work hard for every point they get.
Of course he makes mistakes, as he did late in losing the fourth set against Djokovic and falling down a service break early in the fifth on Friday. However, he still manages to wear down his opponent until they make the key errors that open the door for the relentless Nadal.
That finally happened late in the marathon match, when Nadal broke Djokovic at love to take the fifth set 9-7.
For his part, Nadal has the most effective topspin from his left-handed forehand than just about any other player in the game. Most tennis players are comfortable hitting the ball at about waist high, yet because of his significant topspin, Nadal forces players to take the ball more around the shoulders—keeping them uncomfortable and off balance.
From just about any angle on the court, he is able to aggressively play from the forehand. While he makes his fair share of errors, the action on his ball limits his opponents’ ability to play the return, allowing Nadal to set up well for the next play.
The slow nature of the clay surface and Nadal’s terrific footwork also allows him to hit more forehands than on any other surface, further advancing his topspin advantage. Very often during rallies Rafa has the time and energy to run around his backhand to play from the forehand and hit it effectively from just about any angle on the court.
Mental and Physical Fitness
Not only is Nadal one of the most gifted tennis players in the world, he is one of the smartest, toughest and hardest working in the sport.
Even in the 2012 French Open finals, playing in difficult conditions against a strong Djokovic, Nadal had the energy and mental toughness to survive a grueling four-set match that was delayed into Monday by rain.
The Spaniard, who grew up playing on the European red clay, understands how physically and mentally prepared one has to be to win on the surface. The points are longer, and the opportunities to game plan and position are much greater than on grass and hard courts, where pure instinct and immediate response are called for.
Nadal has the ability to think his way not only through matches but during actual points, playing himself into situations where he controls the points and makes his opponent work overtime to win them.
Bottom line is no one in the sport thinks as well on the surface and executes better in crucial moments than Nadal does.
There’s no question that champions like Roger Federer and Djokovic—and even his finals opponent Ferrer, who is seeking his first Slam title—have the attributes described here. Players of their ilk all work hard, want to win and have the natural talent to claim Grand Slams.
Yet with Rafa, it just seems he was created to play clay-court tennis. He not only owns every physical and mental attribute required, he has them in spades.
The results simply can’t be argued with, and when he claims his eighth French Open on Sunday, the "King of Clay" will once again have proven that he is the sport’s greatest player on its most grueling of surfaces.