Nadal in the semi-final of last year's French Open

King of the clay court

On the red clay of Stade Roland Garros, Nadal is God


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

By the time you read this the French Open will be at least halfway done, and Rafael Nadal will still be involved barring injury, illness, catastrophe or force majeure. The traditional insurance policy “act of God” get-out clause is hardly applicable here: on the red clay of Stade Roland Garros, Nadal is God.

He has won the men’s singles 13 times. In four of those tournaments he has not dropped a single set from first match to last. Of those 13 finals, none have gone to a fifth set. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have been taken the distance twice each during the finals of their nine Australian Opens and eight Wimbledon titles respectively. Not Nadal, not in Paris.

And finally, he has never lost a final there. When he gets to the ultimate match he wins it, every time: four straight from 2005-2008, five straight from 2010-2014, and four more straight from 2017-2020. Since that first win in 2005, he has only lost three matches (and withdrew injured before another). He was two days past his nineteenth birthday when he won his first title: this year’s semi-finals take place the day he turns 36.

He makes it look easy. It’s not. It’s the sharp end of a brutally competitive discipline. “Some say beating Rafa over five sets on clay is the toughest thing in sport — not just tennis,” says John McEnroe. “I’d agree with that.”

What makes Nadal so good on clay? His vicious lasso-style forehand puts absurd amounts of topspin on the ball in any conditions, but on clay this becomes an exponentially more lethal weapon: the slow pace of the court makes the ball kick higher, which forces his opponents to retreat so they can make their own shots at an efficient height, which gives Nadal all the advantage of time and space to wear them down (and, with his predatory court coverage, nobody in tennis does this better) before going for the jugular.

Young Rafa playing in 2000

He doesn’t just hit a few shots before going for a winner. Clay allows him to build each point shot by shot, rather like a chess player seeing several moves ahead, knowing that what seems like a good position for his opponent right now will in a few exchanges’ time be fatally flawed and vulnerable to execution. 

“He knows how to manipulate the angles to build to get people out of position,” says 1989 champion Michael Chang. “He is very aggressive, although patient when he needs to be, but for the most part if the shot is there he is taking it and going for it. He’s the one manipulating, making you move and putting you in awkward positions to the point where he has easy cutaways.”

Add to this his left-handedness, so those forehands are coming with whip to a right-hander’s backhand, and the massive run-off areas behind the courts at Roland Garros which give Nadal ample room to hunt down every shot coming his way, and it’s clear why beating Nadal in Paris can seem less a job for mere tennis players and more one for Tom Cruise and his Mission: Impossible team.

The lineage from which Nadal comes is distinguished. Most Spanish players grow up playing on clay — there are around 100,000 red-dirt courts across the country, even in small villages — and four of his compatriots have also won the French Open in the past 30 years: Sergi Bruguera (twice), Carlos Moyá, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero. But none of them — nor Argentina’s Gastón Gaudio, Thomas Muster of Austria and Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, who have also been champions in that time — won any other Grand Slams. 

Before Nadal, the French Open had become something of an oddity, a tournament for clay specialists who floundered on the Wimbledon grass or the hard courts of Melbourne and New York. He, and the men who have won in his brief absences — Federer, Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka — are players for all courts and all seasons.

Roland Garros is quintessentially French

So how do you beat Nadal in Paris? There are two answers. The first is Novak Djokovic, who has inflicted two of the Spaniard’s three defeats since he began winning there in 2005. The second comes from Sweden’s Robin Söderling, the man responsible for the third defeat. “You have to be extremely aggressive: play a little bit flatter than you usually do, play close to the baseline, take your chances. You need to play with smaller margins and take some risks, take the initiative. There is no other way of beating him on clay.” Easier said than done, though.

One of the most endearing things about each of the four Grand Slam tournaments is the extent to which they conform to national stereotypes. Melbourne in January is fearsomely hot and the crowds love anyone who gives it a fair dinkum go; Wimbledon lives up to its mission statement of “tennis in an English country garden”; Flushing Meadows is a Queens bearpit, loud and raucous. 

Roland Garros is quintessentially French: named with magnificent perversity after an aviator rather than a tennis player, the courts linked by wide boulevard-style walkways which make the complex feel like the capital in miniature, and full of achingly chic Parisians who this year, as every year, will cheer loudest for their adopted son, the man from Mallorca with bulging muscles and a gracious smile who has lit up their courts like no-one else. Chapeau, as the locals like to say. Chapeau.

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