Clay King Rafael Nadal Dominates as Modern Spanish Armada Seizes Rome

JA AllenSenior Writer IMay 1, 2010

European clay has imposed its “stop action” properties on all the world’s top tennis players, except those from Spain.

Friday in Rome, there were Spaniards playing in each of the quarterfinal matches at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia Masters 1000 Tournament with an opportunity, of course, for all four of them to advance to the semifinals on Saturday.

The domination of players from a particular county on a singular surface has never been quite so striking as it has been for Spanish players competing on clay. Since 2005, the supremacy generally rested with one person—Rafael Nadal, the media-proclaimed King of Clay.

But this year, early on we saw a resurgence on clay of Juan Carlos Ferrero during the South American swing. When Ferrero wasn’t able to win his last one, David Ferrer stepped in to pick up another trophy in Acapulco.

So far in 2010, eight ATP matches have been played on clay, with Spanish players winning five of them. We suspect soon the retooled Spanish Armada will have won six of nine, once the Rome finals are complete.

Winning two-thirds of all clay matches played is an impressive statistic, regardless of your impressions of the players or the surface.

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Twelve of the world’s top 100 tennis players originate from Spain with nine of them in the top 50, two in the top 10. Spain, France, and Germany are the three countries that have the greatest number of players in the top 50—Spain with nine and France and Germany with five each.

France—for the moment—is on a decline, as former top players like Gilles Simon and Paul Henri Mathieu suffer falling fortunes and Gael Monfils remains injured. Germany would be ahead of France, except that Tommy Haas is now considered a player from the U.S. With Haas in their camp, the U.S. has four players in the top 50, James Blake now falling out of that upper tier.

Furthermore, Spain has won the Davis Cup the last two years in a row, in 2008 against Argentina on indoor hard court and in 2009 against the Czech Republic on indoor clay.

The results of the clay court legion illustrate dramatically that Spanish players win on clay. That being said, it is important to note that, in this day and age, players from Spain also win frequently on other surfaces, led by the success of their leader, Rafael Nadal.

This was not always the case.

Back in the 1990s, players like Albert Costa, Sergi Bruguera, and Alberto Berasategui played brilliant clay-court tennis. They were, however, only capable of winning on the dirt and did not win on other surfaces. In fact, many times they chose not to compete elsewhere and reserved all their energies for the clay.

Today’s players, like Nadal, Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, and Feliciano Lopez, do very well on other surfaces, often bringing home championships on the hard courts as well as clay. So far, Nadal is the only Spaniard to have won a major on the grass.

What is the reason Spanish clay-courters currently enjoy so much success on clay and on other surfaces?

1. Increasingly Slower Surfaces

The powers that be who dictated the future of tennis decreed that there should be fewer distinctions between surfaces. They wanted top players to play in all of the ATP tournaments. There would no longer be “clay” specialists or “grass” or “hard court” specialists. It wasn’t good for the game.

Starting in the early 2000s, tournament directors began to slow grass courts, especially the renowned grounds of Wimbledon. The effect of that plus the changes in tennis racket technology finally eliminated serve and volley tennis as a major playing style.

The prevailing feeling was that only a few players could succeed on the rapid-fire grass surface—those with big first serves and those with volleying skills. Players like Tim Henman complained bitterly about the slow-down of the grass courts.

Grass, which was supposed to be the fastest, was followed by hard courts in terms of playing speed. The fastest major played on hard courts in the early 2000s was at the Australian Open in Melbourne on a surface called “Rebound Ace.”

In 2008, however, organizers switched surfaces for a variety of reasons. But the effect of installing Plexicushion was to further slow the game, according to many players, including Roger Federer.

That leaves the U.S. Open, whose surface “Deco Turf” remains the fastest with less friction and a lower bounce than other hard courts. It has been the surface of the U.S. Open since Arthur Ashe Stadium was erected in 1997.

The effect of slowing down the other playing surfaces is to make them more amenable to clay court practices. With more time to react and less reliance on powerful serves and net play, all players have a chance to succeed on any surface, assuming, of course, the player has the requisite talent, dedication and desire to win.

2. Training Regime

Players who build their game on clay learn tennis basics better than players who learn on other surfaces. By honing tactics needed to win on clay like patience, endurance, and careful point construction, you learn how to play good, solid tennis on any surface.

Those skills can be transferred now because all surfaces have slowed sufficiently. These practices work everywhere now that there is enough time to react and move into position.

Play in today’s matches remains confined almost exclusively to baseline tennis. Therefore, it is possible for a clay court tennis player to win on grass and on hard courts.

All you have to do is look at the career of Rafael Nadal to see this is true. Nadal has learned to successfully adapt his clay-court game to other venues. He has won Slams on all surfaces. This is because grass and hard courts have slowed sufficiently to allow Nadal to find success.

It makes what Bjorn Borg accomplished so much more astonishing because when he won back to back French Open and Wimbledon Championships in the late '70s and early '80s, Borg was going from the slow clay to the fastest surface possible, Wimbledon grass.

By the time Nadal won the Wimbledon Championship in 2008, the grass courts had slowed significantly. In fact many complained they were now slower than hard courts.

Further the Tennis Federation in Spain works hard to build its tennis corps from the time players begin playing in their junior careers. They provide excellent programs and follow through teaching players the best practices while encouraging them to approach all surfaces with the same determination that makes them excel on clay.

When you survey the number of clay courts by country* it is important to note that only 13 percent of all the tennis courts in the United States have clay surfaces. Canada offers 37 percent of its total courts in clay while France, the home of the French Open, offers 15 percent and Great Britain and Australia offer only 1 percent each.

It paints a picture explaining in part why these countries, once dominant, no longer reign at the top of the game.

This is in contrast to Spain, with 84 percent clay courts. The highest numbers of clay courts exist in Argentina, with 99 percent, and Chile, with 96. Germany and Austria each have 95 percent clay.

Clay, of course, once established, lasts a lifetime. It is much cheaper to maintain than grass or hard courts.

Still, the homogenizing of tennis arenas may not bring the desired result in the long run, as players and fans long for variety once offered by the change of seasons and surfaces. Winning on all surfaces today is not the same as it once was because the surfaces are nearly alike in speed and bounce.

So as Nadal, Ferrer, and Verdasco from Spain and Ernests Gulbis from Latvia battle today in the semifinals of the Masters 1000 in Rome—it will be interesting to see if we have an all-Spanish final as we did in Monte Carlo.

Nadal will have to get through Gulbis—and we all suspect he will. Ferrer and Verdasco will battle to see which one of them will get to face the King of Clay tomorrow and go down to defeat at the hands of the leader of the modern Spanish Armada...

* Statistics from Frick Park Clay Court Tennis Club.

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