He has just one win on clay this season—the Madrid Open—and never before have we seen the clay-court champion struggle on a surface he's used to dominating on. Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times wrote about just how uncharacteristically poor he has played on clay this year:
Nadal won last week in Madrid, but he has still had one of the worst clay-court seasons of his career, including quarterfinal losses at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, tournaments he has dominated. The last time Nadal lost three matches on clay before the French Open was in 2003, when he was 16.
Everyone knows just how dominant Nadal has been at Roland Garros, however. He has won four the last five and eight of the last nine French Opens. Roger Federer is the only man to win the French Open in the last nine years not named Nadal.
Roger Federer got his 59th match win at French Open today. He entered the event 1 behind Rafael Nadal's wins record— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 25, 2014
This past dominance of the event suggests that we should overlook all of his previous struggles on clay this year.
Nadal grew up playing on clay, and his skills cater to success on non-grass courts. His speed and athleticism allow him to cover an extraordinary amount of ground on clay. Even when opponents hit perfect shots, he is fast and athletic enough to return them.
Nadal also excels on clay because of the topspin he can generate on his forehand. Most players prefer to strike the ball in their core, about waist-high. The topspin Nadal generates makes returning his shots difficult for opponents because, on clay, the ball takes a higher bounce with that topspin. Instead of returning the ball at waist height, opponents are forced to strike the ball around their shoulders.
The slow nature of a clay surface allows Nadal to set himself up for even more forehands. More forehands equals more topspin, and more topspin equals a bigger advantage for the Spaniard.
Despite how well clay caters to his style, Nadal will certainly face stiff competition from several players. One player to watch against Nadal is Novak Djokovic. Even though Nadal has defeated Djokovic in each of the last two French Opens, he is confident in his abilities to compete against anybody, via Rothenberg:
Will Nadal win the 2014 French Open?
"My feelings for the French are better now than one week ago," said Nadal. "That's a positive thing for me. During the clay-court season, every week was a little bit better for me. I hope to feel ready for it."
Struggles aside, you simply can't pick against Nadal in the French Open. You'd be crazy to. Nadal is one of the best players in the world, and he knows how to step his game up on the biggest stages. His mental preparation is top-notch, and he won't let his early-season struggles on clay get to him this season.
He has dominated at Roland Garros for nearly the past decade. That won't change in 2014. Look for him to hoist the French Open trophy after the rigorous tournament concludes on June 8.