Turning 36, managing a stress fracture on his ribs and nursing an injured left foot proved no match for Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros, or the French Open. Nadal beat Casper Ruud in straight sets — including winning 11 straight games to close out the match — for his 14th French Open title and 22nd Grand Slam.
He also is now 474-45 in matches on clay and an even more impressive 112-3 record at the French Open. Nadal has dominated clay courts since the age of 19 and has rightfully earned his nickname: the king of clay. But it begs the question, what makes Nadal so dominant on clay?
To start, we must first understand the surface of clay. Clay courts are made up of layers of crushed brick, which means they are wildly different from grass and hardcourt. Clay is the most physically and mentally demanding surface. The speed of the ball is slower, and the balls bounce higher, resulting in longer rallies.
Spain is home to about 100,000 clay courts, making it the natural surface for most Spanish players, especially Nadal. In fact, at the 2003 Hamburg European Open, a 16-year-old Nadal stunned fellow countrymen Carlos Moya in straight sets on a clay court. For context, Carlos Moya was the world number four and won the French Open in 1998.
Another reason for Nadal’s dominance on clay is his unique style of play. Watching Nadal play, you quickly notice five distinct characteristics: his vicious, lasso-style lefty forehand, astounding mental fortitude, athleticism, tennis IQ and versatility. These five characteristics all give Nadal supreme advantages on clay.
He is well known for his lasso-style forehand –– a forehand that generates 3,200 revolutions per minute. To put that in perspective, Nadal generates twice as much topspin as Pete Sampras, who was one of the hardest-hitting players in the early 2000s. Clay courts allow balls to bounce more, meaning Nadal’s shots will bounce higher and further, making it difficult for opponents to hit.
Another factor that contributes to the king of clay’s success is his athleticism. Clay is the most physically and mentally demanding surface, and Nadal excels in these situations. The Spaniard is notorious for his fighting spirit and his will to win. Nadal has had four different comebacks down two sets, including an all-time comeback at the Australian Open final against Daniil Medvedev in early 2022.
Nadal has the heart of a lion and the patience of one too. Like a lion stalking its prey and striking when it’s most vulnerable, Nadal plays long rallies, patiently setting himself up for the right moment to slam a winner.
The last factor that contributes to Nadal’s dominance on clay is his versatility and cleverness. Nadal plays mind games with his opponents. For a man known for his speed and quickness, he is one of the slowest tennis players of the Open Era from a length-of-match standpoint.
Famous for his pre-point rituals, Nadal averaged 26.1 seconds between points when serving from 2008 to 2019. For context, tennis players are limited to 25 seconds between points, meaning he routinely served beyond the 25-second rule. Nadal asserts his own pace of play, disrupting and discomforting opponents.
Another example of Nadal’s versatility is his first serve. On clay, Nadal habitually serves 55.8% of his serves on the deuce side on the T section and wins about 68.3% of his points. However, when down two break points, he crushes serves out-wide, winning almost 80% of his points. Nadal strategically uses a serve that is successful for him so infrequently to keep opponents guessing.
This year’s French Open was a true testament to Nadal’s dominance on clay. Being on the wrong side of 30 and managing multiple injuries, Nadal still beat Novak Djokovic — the then world number one and favorite to win the French Open — in four sets and then cruised to victory in the final. Nadal has rightfully kept his throne as the king of clay.