When Rafael Nadal arrives in Paris this season with an opportunity to win his 11th French Open title, he could possibly be there in a means nobody anticipated: higher than ever on clay.
Nadal, who will probably be 32 years outdated in June, ought to have been completed by now, particularly on clay. It’s uncommon for gamers older than 30 to win the French Open, and Nadal had been on a downward pattern. He didn’t win the event in 2015 or 2016, and he received simply two clay tournaments in 2015. Even worse, he misplaced to Novak Djokovic that yr within the French Open quarterfinals, a positive signal that he was not invincible. (Djokovic received in straight units, together with a lethal 6-1 within the third.) A yr later, Nadal left the French Open after profitable two rounds due to a wrist harm. Even at his finest in these two years, he regarded nicely behind Djokovic, who beat Nadal seven occasions in a row with out dropping a set, together with three on clay.
However as an alternative of crumbling, Nadal has climbed again and turn out to be extra dominant on clay than ever earlier than. He’s executed it with extra highly effective strokes, a stronger serve and extra volleys — and, most necessary, the arrogance that appeared to flee him a number of years in the past. For the reason that begin of final yr’s French Open, Nadal hasn’t misplaced a set on clay in three tournaments plus two Davis Cup matches. That’s an all-time report of 46 clay court docket units in a row, smashing the previous report of 35 consecutive clay wins by Guillermo Coria. Nadal has come near this earlier than, too: 4 different occasions in his profession he received 30 or extra consecutive units on clay, based on the ATP World Tour.
However Nadal isn’t simply profitable matches on the floor he loves; he’s dominating them. Nadal’s dominance ratio, which is the measure of a participant’s profitable share when returning serve versus the opponent’s profitable share on serve return factors, is on the highest it’s ever been over the previous two years. Basically, his opponents are by no means protected on the court docket — Nadal can win any level at any time. In Barcelona this yr, Martin Klizan misplaced his first set in opposition to Nadal at love, however he broke Nadal’s serve within the second set and led 5-Three. Nadal held serve after which saved three set points in opposition to him to tie up the set at 5-5. Nadal proceeded to win the following two video games to shut out the match.
Tennis has by no means seen a participant who excels extra on a single floor than Nadal. His profession on clay boggles the thoughts. He owns a report that, in tennis, doesn’t compute — it shouldn’t be doable. His general report on clay is 401-35: Sure, that’s 92 p.c. Within the Open period, which started in 1968, no different star in tennis has come near that on any floor. The following highest profitable share on clay comes from Bjorn Borg, who received 86 p.c of his clay court docket matches — and he performed far fewer matches than Nadal (294 in all on clay). The very best gamers on different surfaces don’t match Nadal, both. Roger Federer has received eight Wimbledon titles, an all-time report, and 87 p.c of his matches on grass, in 188 makes an attempt. Pete Sampras, a seven-time Wimbledon winner, received 84 p.c of his 121 whole matches on grass. And Djokovic, winner of six titles on the Australian Open and two on the U.S. Open, has an 84 p.c profitable share in his 609 exhausting court docket matches.
For all his dominance, the one accomplishment Nadal has but to realize goes undefeated within the 4 premier clay court docket tournaments1 after which profitable the French Open in a single season. The closest he got here was in 2013, when he misplaced the Monte Carlo remaining to Djokovic after which received his subsequent 4 clay occasions, together with the French Open. Final yr was comparable for Nadal: He received 4 clay tournaments however misplaced within the quarterfinals on the Italian Open, in straight units to Dominic Thiem. He later thumped Thiem in straight units within the French Open semifinals, ending the match with a 6-Zero set.
For Nadal to win in Madrid and Italy this yr, he’ll want to remain wholesome and play as few taxing video games as doable, as he has executed to this point. However it doesn’t matter what occurs in these tourneys, except he’s damage, he’ll be the heavy favourite to win the French Open, where his record is 79-2. Don’t be shocked if that turns into 85-2 come June.