Titan's cutting edge

Titan's cutting edge

Spanish ace Rafael Nadal has built his imposing record at Roland Garros by relying on spin and mobility

That Rafael Nadal is not simply great on clay, but historically great on clay, perhaps the best ever on clay, is not an unfamiliar notion. The pertinent question is: What is it about Nadal that makes him dominant on all surfaces but nearly unbeatable on this one? 

 Rafael Nadal’s amazing technique and skills have made him almost invincible on the red clay of Roland Garros.

The answers include geometry, mathematics, risk management, chess, biomechanics and physics. They include two legs as thick as telephone poles and a forehand that produces, on average, 3,300 revolutions per minute of dizzying spin. 

“It boils down to margins,” said Justin Gimelstob, the Tennis Channel analyst. “It’s percentages. It’s how you move the margins in your favour. Nobody on any surface since Pete Sampras on grass moves the margins on a surface like Nadal does on clay.” 

On clay, Nadal plays to his favourite patterns against his opponent’s weaker patterns, Gimelstob said, and the only way for them to change that is take on significantly more risk. Take, for example, his famous lasso of a left-handed forehand, which is most often placed wide and high to the backhand of a right-handed opponent. Those opponents have two options. One is to take the ball early, which is more difficult on clay, because the ball bounces higher and with less predictability, and hit it back to his forehand or risk a more difficult shot down the line. The other is to move backward, on the defensive, unable to hit with power or any kind of angle. 

That is but one example, one instance of a margin moved. If Nadal can move five margins, or 10, or 15, by small increments, his overall advantage increases exponentially. That is how has Nadal won 247 of 266 career matches on this surface, his record 221-9 since 2005. He has 35 clay titles, including six at Roland Garros, where he has indeed lost – once. 

“You can win a set to Rafa, but there is a difference between winning a set and winning a match,” said David Ferrer, who lost to Nadal in the semifinals this time. “Winning a match against Rafa here is almost impossible.” 

Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach, saw clay courts as tennis’s best teaching surface. It took more than a big serve to win on them because they were more complex. The US Tennis Association recently added more clay courts to train juniors. On clay, Toni Nadal said, the best players won points because they built them. 

“It’s important to know the point is not only with one shot,” he said. “You should move correctly every ball. Move to defend it. Move to attack it. The movement is very important every point.” 

When Toni Nadal watched Bjorn Borg on clay, he was entranced by him. Borg never seemed out of place, his movement so precise, he said, that it seemed as if Borg would never lose on the slippery red surface. Movement, he added, is his nephew’s most underrated attribute on clay. 

Rafael Nadal constructs points on clay as if playing chess, Gimelstob said, “except Rafa has four queens.” Jose Higueras, a US Tennis Association coach, the man behind French Open titles won by Michael Chang and Jim Courier, said the best clay court players think two shots ahead, and Nadal, Higueras ventured, seemed to think three or four shots in advance.

Checkmate is made possible by this movement. Even in full sprint, on the softest surface, Nadal rarely looks hurried. He can change direction at full speed and hit winners on the run. His slide is as effective as any slide on Tour, the result, his uncle said, of Nadal’s core strength. The combination, his ability to slide into shots and instantly change direction, allows Nadal to shift from offensive to defensive movement, to control strategy and pace less by the shots he hits than by how he arrives at them. 

“There’s an art to it,” Gimelstob said. “The way he manages space to set up shots is artistic.” 

The clay-court circuit, once dominated by specialists, once far slower than other surfaces, now plays similarly to grass and hard courts. This trend benefits Nadal, who is forced to cover less of the court but can circle the ball to hit with more spin and power. His movement, while no less explosive, is more efficient. He rarely takes an unnecessary step. 

When Nadal closes on a ball here, he moves in semicircles, his body turned halfway around, to the right or left, coiled into position. This buys him an extra split second to power through ground strokes and allows him to hit harder, which steals split seconds from his opponents. Another margin: time. 

“He never looks off-balance,” Higueras said. “His centre of gravity is always underneath him.” 

Gil Reyes, a fitness trainer who worked with Andre Agassi among others, said it all starts with Nadal’s legs. 

“Nadal weighs 188 pounds, and while he’s muscular, big biceps, he’s not massive in the upper body,” Reyes said. “He’s most thick through the glutes and thighs, through the trunk.” 

Leg strength is more important on clay than any other surface, the basis of all movement. Reyes noted that while clay might look fun at home, might appear cushiony, moving on it is like “playing tennis on a hardwood floor in socks.” 

Legs, Reyes said, stabilise players’ skeletons on clay and relieve the inevitable tension the instability places on the back. Toni Nadal said his nephew conducted significant resistance training, often with a balance board, the focus on hip strength. 

“On clay, Nadal’s inner thighs are particularly important,” Reyes said. “They allow him to unload his holsters with his feet so far apart, in those rare instances he’s off-balance. And not just the strength to hit, but over and over again. His legs allow him an intensity in movement.” 

Patrick McEnroe, general manager for development at the USTA, said Nadal’s positioning helped create spin. 

“That’s what separates him: how heavy his forehand is, just the rpm’s it generates,” McEnroe said. “There’s so much weight on the forehand, if he gets you in any sort of defensive position, and you’re trying to defend his forehand, it’s basically impossible to defend more than two to three shots.” 

When they say heavy, they mean it literally. The average professional men’s tennis player hits a forehand that spins at 2,700 revolutions per minute. Nadal’s spins at 600 rpm’s greater on average and clears the net at a far greater height. Because of his racket speed, because of the revolutions produced, because new string technology generates more spin, his forehand kicks higher in the air and with a less predictable bounce, chunks of clay flying this way and that. That’s another margin: spin. 

As a match wears on, the heavy ground strokes wear down opponents already tired from running. Each forehand is like a body blow in boxing, the cumulative impact far greater later on. That is why Nadal wins so many final sets, 6-1 or 6-0, why his opponents often claim of shoulder pain afterward. 

“It feels, literally, like it’s pushing you backward,” McEnroe said. “Even if you’re six feet behind the baseline. I watched him practice the other day, and I was thinking, How’s anybody going to deal with this guy?” 

On clay, even Nadal’s (relative) weaknesses are reduced. The lack of speed on his second serve is mitigated by the slower surface, as is his propensity to leave an occasional ground stroke short. He can more often run around his forehand and does not have to step into his backhand as much on second serves. Being left-handed, meanwhile, is more of an advantage because of the odd bounces that careen at angles exaggerated on the clay. 

Just ask Nicolas Almagro, whom Nadal vanquished in the quarterfinals. Almagro said he “played well” and “applied my strategy” and “tried my best.” He still lost, in straight sets.  “Rafa’s best attribute on clay is his least noticeable,” Higueras said. “He has the best head in tennis. Or maybe in sports.” 

Higueras meant mental fortitude, the way Nadal attacks every point from the first to the last. Reyes said Nadal played tennis like Mike Tyson. 

“How discouraging is it to play Nadal on this surface?” John McEnroe, the Hall of Fame player, said. “I played Borg in my day, and he was like a human backboard. The way Nadal puts away a shot – shots that seemed impossible when I was playing – is unheard of.” 

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