Rafael Nadal on clay is the most dominant spectacle is the history of individual sports
The Spaniard’s 10th French Open title is just another reminder his domination of the clay court season is unlike anything we have ever seen in tennis, let alone sports
In women’s tennis, Martina Navratilova has nine Wimbledon titles, but you can’t say she is far and away the greatest grass court player of all-time. Steffi Graf was just as good, Serena Williams might be better. No one is just as good or better than Nadal on clay.
In men’s tennis, the debate rages on between who is the best grass court player of all-time. Is it Federer, Sampras, Borg, Becker, or McEnroe? There is no debate when it comes to clay.
Margaret Court is the most dominate player the Australian Open has seen pre-open era and Novak Djokovic is the most dominant player during the open era. Nadal is the most dominant player Paris has seen any era.
At the U.S. Open, Federer, Sampras, and Connors are in a three-way tie for the most titles in the open era with five. Nadal is tied with no one at the French Open and has no close second.
Djokovic, Court, Federer, Navratilova, Sampras, Evert, Graf, and the Williams sisters all at one point dominated a certain grand slam. As dominant as these great players were, none of their names are synonyms with a surface or tournament like Nadal is with clay court tennis and Roland Garros.
Even the best on clay don’t compare
There have been plenty of great clay court players throughout the history of tennis.
Thomas Muster was 40–5 in clay court finals and won the ’95 French Open. Gustavo Kuerten propelled himself to number one in the world because of his great play on the clay and won three times in Paris.
Monica Seles won three straight titles in Paris before a two-year absence after an on-court stabbing via a crazy fan. Justine Henin won the French Open four times in five years before inexplicably retiring in her prime.
But the only two players with somewhat comparable clay court resumes are Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert.
Borg won the French Open six times in eight appearances before retiring in his prime. Much like Nadal, he wore his opponents down and produced some of the most lopsided finals tournament history.
Evert won in Paris seven times, made two other finals and won 125 consecutive matches on clay. She won 95 percent of her matches and holds an astonishing 382–22 career match record on the red dirt.
Still as great as Borg and Evert were, they still fall short. To go along with his 10th French Open title, Nadal has won Barcelona 10 times, Monte Carlo nine times, Rome seven times, he has a 52–8 record in clay court finals, a 79–2 record in Paris, and a 102–2 record in best-of-five clay court matches.
He looked better than ever in 2017 French Open and his form against Stanislas Wawrinka in the final was incredible. When it’s all said and done he might have more French Open titles than Borg and Evert combined, his only rival on clay is his health.
His greatness is more than the titles and records
Titles and records are in part circumstantial. The era an athlete competes in plays a significant factor in their success. The rule of play, competition, and the evolution of said sport sometimes is the main reason why some players or teams have more success than others.
Bill Russell is lauded as the greatest winner in team sports with 11 NBA titles to his name and in fairness it’s true, no one has won more than Russell. But few would ever mention that his success came at a time when the NBA was a third of the size it is today, with less competition, and little to no separation of talent.
It’s not Russell’s fault he played in a young and undeveloped league, but it does not mean his 11 championships are more impressive than Michael Jordan’s six titles or Tim Duncan’s five. The point is some athletes, whether they play individual sports or not, win more because of circumstance rather than their own greatness.
Nadal’s abundance of titles and virtually unblemished records have more to do with his greatness than circumstance. His 10th title in Paris was further proof of that.
He made a three-time grand slam champion in Stanislas Wawrinka, who is in his prime look like a one-dimensional player. There are very few players Wawrinka can’t hit off the court.
His down the line forehand and cross court backhand are two of the heaviest and hardest shots to defend in today’s game. But on clay against Rafael Nadal they have little to no impact.
This point is emblematic of how great Nadal is on clay. On the seventh shot of the rally Nadal runs around his backhand to hit an inside-in forehand, giving Wawrinka an opening to hit one of his signature cross court backhand winners. Wawrinka crushes the backhand cross court only to be outdone by a forehand winner down the line by an outstretched Nadal.
Wawrinka wins this point against any other player on tour and probably hits a winner. He hit a world class shot and still lost the point. Shots like that are the reason why he has three grand slams in the first place, but against Nadal on clay, powerful shot making is simply not enough.
As a result, for a little over two hours, Wawrinka was just another one-dimensional player. That’s just what Nadal does. He obliterates his opponents to the point that they just give up.
He suffocates you with massive topspin groundstrokes, runs down every ball, and turns defense into offense better than anyone to ever play the game, no matter his position on the court. It’s war of attrition against Nadal and very few players have been able to last more than a few sets.
The only reasonable cross-sport comparison you can make is to Floyd Mayweather. Once his opponents figure out they can’t land a punch their body language completely changes. They become disheveled. It’s hard to find a fight where Mayweather has been tested from round six on, simply because most of his opponents give up by then.
Like Mayweather, Nadal’s opponents simply quit.
And that is why Rafa’s domination on clay transcends the sport of tennis. When you put all his records aside and watch the tape, you see why he has no rival on this surface. He plays in the greatest era of men’s tennis with arguably the best collection of talent any sport has ever seen in one era and no one has been able to beat him at his best, let alone make it competitive. His greatest hits include in Paris include:
2007: A 6–3, 6–4, 6–0 win over Carlos Moya in the quarterfinals
2008: The whole field, topped off with a 6–1, 6–3, 6–0 win over Federer in the final
2010: The second time he won in Paris without dropping a set, concluding in a 6–4, 6–2, 6–4 win over Robin Soderling in the final
2012: A 6–2, 6–1, 6–1 win over David Ferrer in the semifinals
2013: Another beat down of Ferrer, this time a 6–3, 6–2, 6–3 win in the final
2014: A 6–3, 6–2, 6–1 win over Andy Murray in the semifinals
2017: Winning the tournament for a third time without losing a set, his best play came in his last two matches where he lost a combined 13 games against Dominic Thiem and Stanislas Wawrinka, two of the best clay court players on tour. For the whole tournament, Nadal lost a measly 35 games in seven matches.
No one has truly beaten him at his best
Both of Nadal’s losses at the French Open had more to do with his form, rather than the play of his opponents. His loss to Robin Soderling in the 2009 French Open was an anomaly most likely due to his knee problems.
It might sound like a cop-out but it’s a more reasonable explanation than Nadal being miraculously outplayed by an opponent he beat 6–1, 6–0 a few weeks prior in Rome.
The severity of Nadal’s injury during the French Open is unknown, but everything that came after that match proved he was not at his best. He pulled out of Wimbledon and subsequently lost the number one ranking. The next year he returned to form, played Soderling in the final, and the rest is history.
His second loss, six years later against Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals was an even more obvious example of a hampered Nadal. It was the worst match he ever played in Paris, marking the start of a rapid decline over the next two years. Nadal was a shell of himself and not even remotely close to healthy or in top form.
No other individual athlete compares
Armstrong dominated the Tour de France, Phelps blew away the competition in the 100 and 200-meter butterfly and IM, and Usain Bolt was unbeatable in sprinting events.
In their prime Armstrong, Phelps, and Bolt were just as dominant as Nadal. But it’s his whole body of work that sets him apart. Remember, Nadal’s dominance is more than just a two-week tournament in Paris. It’s been a three-month period of a season for the past 12 years.
For more than a decade he has dominated the five biggest clay court tournaments in the world. He would play in a final on a Sunday and be back in action in a different country on a Tuesday. It’s not just Paris, it’s Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid.
No other play in tennis has come close to doing what Nadal has done on clay, let alone attempt it. He might not go down as the greatest tennis player or athlete of all-time, but his domination of clay court tennis is the greatest single achievement in the history of individual sports.
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