Since 2003, tennis has witnessed an era of dominance like no other during its history. Not only have three grand slam champions been active at the same time, but amongst them has been the greatest clay court player of any generation.
Rafa Nadal’s record on clay defies any belief or logic, which has led to him being called the King of Clay. There have been a few over time that have threatened to make the title of the King of Clay their own but history has shown them not to be the true kings.
Nadal sits rightfully on the throne and does so largely because of his record in the French Open.
French Open Dominance
Nada’s love affair with the French Open goes back to 2005 when he was a teenager with long hair and burning aspirations to win Roland Garros just once.
It was only a couple of days after turning 19 that Nadal won his first French Open, when he beat Mariano Puerta 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-2. Strangely enough, it wouldn’t make Nadal the youngest winner of a major title as Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989 aged just 17.
It would, however, set Nadal off on an incredible run of consecutive French Open titles as the Spaniard won from 2005-2008. If he wasn’t yet the King of Clay after doing that he was certainly next in line to the throne.
The three finals from 2006 to 2008 had Rafa come up against his nemesis Federer in a trio of performances that would see the Spaniard have the commanding edge over the Swiss champion. Very few players in world tennis have been fortunate enough to have that honour.
During the 2008 final, Nadal didn’t drop a set against Federer which made the Spaniard first man to do since the 1980 final at Roland Garros. Nadal humbled Federer to such a degree that he apologised to him during the trophy presentation.
It didn’t look like Nadal would ever lose another game on clay or even against Federer for that matter when he picked up the trophy. Wearing a green vest and sporting long hair, Nadal was the picture of raw athleticism and had the world questioning, how was he ever to be stopped on clay?
Rafa’s next win would be 2010, which was followed by a triumph in 2011 over Federer again in the final.
This was becoming a habit for the Spaniard and his record after that 2011 final meant he had played Federer five times at the French Open over his career and won every single battle.
There wasn’t an equal on clay and that led to Nadal being dubbed the official King of Clay. Beating Federer, who was considered the greatest grand slam champion in history, so resoundingly this time definitely contributed towards being given the title.
More Roland Garros titles would follow in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2017 which gave Nadal an unprecedented ten French Open titles. His win in 2014 set the record for the most consecutive French Open wins in the open era after winning it five times in a row.
Breaking Down Nadal’s Numbers At The French Open
After winning the 2017 French Open, Nadal took his win-loss record to 79-2 in this tournament. His only two losses came in matches in 2009 and 2015 against Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic, respectively.
It’s fair to say the Spaniard feels more than at home on the famous clay surfaces at the French Open.
Nadal will be out to make it an 11th title in 2018 and it’s plainly obvious to see why the greatest clay court exponent to have played the game is favourite at 13/20 to win Roland Garros this year.
Nadal boasts a 97% win ratio at Roland Garros over his career and has won this tournament whilst in his teens, in his twenties and after last year managed to do it in his thirties as well. If ever there was an argument for Nadal being a timeless champion on clay courts, that was one.
Dominating the French Open has been the catalyst for Nadal to be referred to as the King of Clay but his record on any clay surface is as dominant.
Nadal's Kingdom Stretches All Over Europe
In 2010, Nadal completed the clay slam when he won in Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, and France in the same year.
The Spaniard stands alone by reaching this milestone and before the start of the Monte Carlo Masters in 2018, Nadal had won 52 clay court titles.
It was during April 2005 and May 2007 that Nadal went on the longest winning streak of any male on a clay surface since the open era began in 1968. Incredibly, Nadal won 81 games in a row during this time.
What makes Nadal so infinitely better on clay? That isn’t to say that Nadal isn’t prolific on hard courts, either.
It was just last year he won the US Open and may not be the favourite like Federer for US Open glory this year at 3/1 but he can more than mix it with the best on surfaces that aren’t clay.
The gap between him and the rest of the field on clay is a lot bigger than on other surfaces, though. At times, the opposition just serves as cannon fodder when they come up against the Spaniard on clay.
The Keys to Nadal’s Clay Dominance
The Spaniard grew up in Mallorca and was brought up on the clay surfaces. The red clay of the Balearic Islands runs in his veins and was where, as a boy of three years old, he learned his trade.
It was on these surfaces that Nadal mastered the art of tennis on clay as he was coached by his uncle. The clay courts are slower than grass and give a player more time to react to a shot.
Nadal developed the mastery needed on these courts to go on and be crowned the King of Clay as an adult. His forehand has been his most lethal weapon and the one that has made all his clay success possible.
The Spaniard generates a massive amount of topspin via his forehand which proves too much for his opponents to negotiate. His shots bite into the clay and get the same amount of purchase as Anil Kumble would get bowling spin on a dry pitch in India.
The extra kick and bounce off the clay courts are also what Nadal uses to his advantage. The more bounce he produces, the harder it is for his opponents to execute any of their shots.
There aren’t many times Nadal is on the back foot on clay and that is because he nullifies the threat of other players by never giving them a chance to settle or even implement their own style on the contest.
The clay courts and Rafa Nadal’s arsenal of shots have proven to be the perfect combination ever since Nadal won his first French Open in 2005.
Nadal may not go into the grass court events like Wimbledon as favourite like Roger Federer is for this year at 6/4, but that won’t take away from the legacy he has created on the clay courts.
When it comes to playing on clay, there hasn’t been anyone better throughout history than Nadal and it’s tough to see anyone coming close to the records he has set.
The 31-year-old has more than earned the title of the King of Clay and in some ways, it doesn’t seem like it does Nadal enough justice after all he has accomplished on this famed surface.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*