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Rafael Nadal: the Undisputed King of Clay

By: Uzair Shaikh


Source: The New York Times

Introduction 


Having just exited in what may have been his final French Open with a first round loss, the future of Rafael Nadal is uncertain, even from the perspective of Nadal himself. With retirement likely looming by the end of this season, Nadal will go down as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, alongside Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. However, a key statistic that sets the three apart is Nadal’s stellar performance on the clay surface. Clay courts are the slowest type of courts, as the ball bounces higher compared to hard courts and grass courts. This makes for longer rallies and matches which in turn demands player focus and stamina. With a record 14 French Open titles to his name, Nadal is highly regarded as the “King of Clay,” as he won his first one at just 18 years old and won his record 14th in 2022 at the age of 36. For over 20 years, Nadal has dominated the tour on clay, a surface that allows him to utilize his game most effectively.


Data


To start, let’s take a look at a chart comparing Nadal’s clay titles to other players.


We can see that there is a clear gap between Nadal’s title successes and those of other players, with Nadal at 63 and Villas at 49. Titles are a key indicator of a player’s success, as it means they won every round of a tournament and were the last player standing. 


For another perspective, we can see below Nadal’s win percentage on all three surfaces along with titles won.



Though his win percentage is high on all three surfaces, the visual showing the extra percentage on clay is indicative that Nadal’s game style is perfectly catered for the clay surface; thus leading to far more clay court victories. 


What is one key to Nadal’s wins? It’s the return of serve . 


In tennis, the server is always at an advantage, as a strong serve can help the server dictate and gain control of the point. For each point, the server gets two serves. Typically, they will take a larger risk on the first serve, and play it safe on the second serve, with a primary goal of landing it in to avoid losing the point. As a result, returners have the opportunity to attack the second serve and win points on the return. 


Below is an analysis on Nadal’s return games won on each surface:



It is evident that Nadal thrives on the return of serve, specifically on clay. On grass, the ball tends to skid and travels much faster after it bounces and travels towards the returner. As a result, it is more difficult to hit stronger returns and break serve. The term “break serve” refers to winning games on the return. On hard courts, the ball does not skid as much as on grass, but still travels fast towards the returner. Finally, on clay, the ball slows down after it bounces, giving Nadal more time to set up and hit stronger returns. With a strong return, he is able to take control of the point on clay compared to the other two surfaces. 


Even those who are not fans of tennis are aware of the “Big 3,” which consists of Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal, the three players who have dominated the sport for over two decades. A complete comparison and analysis of the difference in return games won between the three players on clay, is shown below.



For context, Djokovic has won three French Opens, and overall 19 titles on clay, while Federer has won just one French Open, and 11 titles on clay. Furthermore, Djokovic is highly regarded as one of the best returners in the whole sport, and even he has been unable to surpass Nadal on return games won on clay. With Nadal breaking serve over 40% of the time, it is no surprise that he was able to win 14 French Open titles throughout his career. When going up against Nadal, players know that they will struggle immensely on their own serve, which leads to them being under pressure to serve well and go bigger on their first serve. This often leads to them missing their first serve more often and being forced to hit more second serves, which Nadal capitalizes on and earns himself an edge in his matches. 


As previously mentioned, there is a significant advantage to winning games when a player is serving as opposed to when they are returning. In other words, one is far more likely to win a game while serving than to win a game while returning. With Nadal already boasting an impressive 43% return game win rate, it's beneficial to analyze his service game win percentage statistics and examine how it affects his overall match win percentage.



Each point on the plot corresponds to a complete season/year of clay matches. Overall, the ideal scenario for Nadal is to win over 83% of his service games, as this leads him to win over 90% of his matches on clay. Impressively, there were two seasons where Nadal won 100% of his service games, which means his opponents were not able to win a single service game during those two clay swings. A high return and serve percentage ultimately leads to disaster for Nadal’s opponents, as they would have to defy the statistics to emerge victorious against him.


Conclusion 


It will be interesting to see if there will ever be a player who can come close to the unreal accomplishments Nadal has achieved on clay throughout his illustrious career. One possible candidate could be Carlos Alcaraz, who has just won his first French Open at the age of 21. However, to equal or surpass the success of Nadal, he will have to maintain a high level and play with consistency until the end of his career. The court conditions of clay are well-suited to Nadal’s strengths, as he utilizes his heavy topspin forehand to push players back, which allows him to gain control of the points. Nadal’s future is currently uncertain, as he has repeatedly mentioned that the 2024 season may be his last one on tour. However, what is not uncertain is that Nadal will go down as the best clay court player of all time, and certainly one of the best athletes the world has seen.


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