Rafael Nadal is the undisputed "king of clay." At the height of his clay dynasty, he has become more than his favorite surface’s conquering ruler. The future of clay-court tennis may rest heavily upon his career exploits on clay and other surfaces.
Last week, Bleacher Report Tennis examined the possibility of a fifth Grand Slam venue at clay-court Brazil. There is at least moderate concern that clay retains its place as the secondary surface on the ATP tour. Respondents frequently suggested that Masters 1000 tournaments on clay represent more regions of the world, including one in South America, even if this means switching existing venues—for example, accepting Brazil or Argentina, but perhaps dropping Madrid.
This article is a follow-up feature that examines the importance of Nadal to the continued health and growth of clay-court tennis.
King of Clay Title Takes New Meaning
Nadal is not the first player to be dubbed the king of clay. It’s an honorary distinction given to whoever is the best player on clay at the moment. In the 1990s, Sergi Bruguera and Thomas Muster were frequently referred to by this label as they won French Open titles and molded their careers almost exclusively on clay.
By 2001, Gustavo Kuerten carried this banner along with his third French Open title.
In 2004, Guillermo Coria lost the French Open, but was considered a viable heir to becoming the next king of clay. Few people at this time had heard of young Nadal.
These players only mastered clay. The title was meant as a compliment, but it carried with it more than enough criticism: You win on clay, but you can’t win on other surfaces. It was as if their version of tennis should contain an asterisk, something Muster had to constantly defend during his peak in 1995-96.
Early in his career, and by early 2008, Nadal had earned a similar reputation as the king of clay.
But Nadal, like the great Bjorn Borg, proved to be more than just a king of clay. In the Open era, they have proven to thoroughly dominate clay as their best surface and win Grand Slam titles at other venues. (Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl were considered more balanced as all-surface champions and not as clay-court specialists.)
By 2010, Nadal had proven himself as master of all Grand Slam surfaces, something only Roger Federer and Andre Agassi could claim. The meaning of being the king of clay had been altered.
Nadal is the standard for clay-court achievements and records, but he is also a superstar at the top of the tennis world on all surfaces. It’s an incomplete and limiting label to dub him the king of clay.
Nevertheless, the king of clay label is important for whoever claims it next. The future of clay-court tennis will continue to need a champion people can recognize. Nadal’s preference for and success on clay is a mandate for the next generation. Whoever takes the baton from Nadal has large shoes to fill, but it’s now a much more respected charge.
Passing down the title may be symbolically necessary, but could be a mockery if tennis fans expect Nadal comparisons. It would take years at best and it’s no longer acceptable to push the title around from one clay vagabond to the next every year or two.
Nadal’s clay exploits have created a paradox. His legacy is incompletely described by being called the king of clay, but he will be defined by it. He may have also destroyed the validity of this title for his heir apparent.
Reshaping the Clay-Court Player
Before Nadal, clay-court players were typically shorter, smaller players with retrieving speed and skills. There were many of them in the late 90s, true specialists like Alex Corretja, Albert Costa, Carlos Moya, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Gaston Gaudio and Coria. They lacked big serves and power but were often more well-rounded and skilled defensively, human backboards with mosquito-like dexterity.
Nadal changed all of that.
It’s too simplistic to describe him in terms of his big lefty topspin, fitness and mental toughness. They don't completely explain the details to why he has continued to shatter clay-court records for nearly a decade. More importantly, it's necessary to examine these traits to understand why his opponents on clay must inevitably change the way the game is played on red clay.
Nadal's movement on clay is near-flawless. Because he can hit offensively from sliding or spread-out positions, he has revolutionized what a clay-court player is. He has powerful legs, a think trunk and large forearms that generate both insane spin and offensive power.
It’s as if he has destroyed the old model of a clay-court player, or rendered him obsolete for Grand Slam relevancy. Fellow Spaniard David Ferrer fits the old model about as well as anyone the past decade, but he is no match for Nadal (17 straight losses to Nadal on clay).
Nadal possesses a unique, self-made style of tennis that is wholly original and that has changed clay-court tennis forever. His clay-court game is a vicious brand of all-courts tennis that is fine-tuned to meet the challenges of diverse opponents.
He might stand six meters beyond the baseline, almost in the laps of spectators. Or he will be spotted at the deuce corner slashing a wicked low crosscourt backhand. Or he could be flashing to the ad court to hit a nasty banana curve forehand—his version of an up-the-line shot, more comparable to a fiery comet that explodes into the Earth’s red crust.
Incredibly, he has the strength and footwork to expand the boundaries of the tennis court. He does this with his personal brand of defensive tennis that turns wickedly offensive—shots come pouring in from the corners, testing new angles with the precision of a geometry master. And it seems routine with Nadal pushing buttons to an astonishing array of attack from 95 feet away.
It’s 3-D tennis—as much emphasis on vertical height and hummingbird side spins—a game of virtual reality that requires space-age weaponry and vision.
His game translates well to other surfaces because he is not a traditional clay-court champion who happens to win on other surfaces. He is an all-courts champion who has a lockdown on clay and has usually dominated the other great champions of his time.
Future clay-court champions are already adapting their own nontraditional or unorthodox ways of attacking on clay. They've seen his strengths, and have pondered how to attack his style. We will likely see a new breed of clay-court players in the new future.
For instance, Robin Soderling, once considered more of an indoor tennis player, was able to hit huge offensive groundstrokes through the court to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros in 2009.
Novak Djokovic, a hard-court extraordinaire, brings amazing defensive and offensive variety to clay-courts. His backhand is well-proportioned for high topspin, he hits the lines and attacks short balls with aggression.
Roger Federer, a fast-surface legend, could still bring his all-court skills and creativity to win on clay. Nobody would call him a clay-courter, but several times he proved that Roland Garros could be conquered with a new approach. He also has the 2009 French Open trophy as proof.
The new clay-court champions will likely not play like Nadal—he is uniquely built. Instead, Nadal’s dominance has produced a counter laboratory that is already creating a new future of clay-court tennis; his legacy on clay is helping to preserve it, albeit by speeding up its evolution.
Masters of Art in Clay
Tennis has needed players like Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal to link superstardom and clay-court tennis.
Developing tennis players are fully aware of the prestige in winning the French Open and clay-court titles. Aspiring stars see Nadal and realize they must also master clay in addition to hard courts and Wimbledon.
At last clay may be seen as equally important, if not more essential, to nurturing the sport’s best players.
Case in point, a wonderful multi-Slam player like Andy Murray cannot be the world’s best without at least winning some titles on clay. Djokovic, despite still chasing his first Roland Garros trophy, has been successful on clay, and therefore a greater champion. Ditto for Federer.
There are certain skills that can only be developed on clay, including greater tenacity on defense, patience in developing points and its own kind of artistic ingenuity.
Patrick McEnroe, General Manager of USTA Player Development, has spearheaded efforts in America to build more clay-court players and train them to be more than concrete servers with big forehands.
Tom Perrotta of The Wall Street Journal explained the rationale behind McEnroe’s clay-court ambitions:
The evidence is readily available: All the best players in the men’s game, and many of the women, have developed their tactics on clay, and then learned to employ them on hard and grass courts. They’ve made tennis a more athletic, taxing sport in the process.
Clearly Nadal’s success has opened many eyes to the future of tennis. The importance of clay courts should be secure enough for at least several years to come.
Don’t expect for Nadal clones to come along anytime soon, or ever. But his influence is the biggest ally to protect the viability and visibility of clay-court tennis.