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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
What makes Nadal unbeatable on clay?

By Joel Drucker
Special to

A pro player once spoke about a certain opponent and declared that to him, being on the court against this guy was pretty much a stress-free environment.

Following his convincing win Sunday at the Tennis Masters Monte Carlo, one wonders if Rafael Nadal feels that way versus -- of all people -- Roger Federer. The 6-4, 6-4 score was a case of a match not as close as the score indicates. Once Nadal fought off break points at 3-4 in the first set, he dismantled Federer comprehensively, a 95-minute victory that extended the Spaniard's clay-court win streak to 67 matches.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal is 5-0 against Roger Federer on clay, with four of those wins coming in the final round.

In case you're wondering, Nadal's last loss on clay came in 2005, in the quarterfinals of Valencia versus Igor Andreev. Alas, poor Igor. He devoted his life to tennis and appears likely to be remembered strictly as the answer to a trivia question.

What makes Nadal so formidable on clay? According to two-time Roland Garros champion Jim Courier, "His spin allows him to move opponents out of position. Court position is the battle on clay, since the slippery nature of the court makes recovery quite difficult."

Nadal's left-handed game is particularly troubling. His crosscourt forehand goes up and away from a right-hander's backhand. Dealing with repeated high balls to the backhand is not easy for a one-hander like Federer. Repeatedly during their matches, the Swiss stubbornly has attempted to drive the ball with top spin. When a ball is struck from that high a position it's quite difficult to generate sustained depth, pace or angle. Moreover, top spin's high bounce creates a shot perfectly in Nadal's wheelhouse. Courier believes that against Nadal, a short slice to the backhand and then a deep drive can help open up the court.

"You have to play attacking tennis to beat Rafa," said Courier.

An additional strength of Nadal's being a left-hander is that his spin serve naturally goes to the backhand. Predictably, he aims just about all his deliveries there, ostensibly daring his opponents to attempt a big shot. But occasionally, as he did versus Federer, Nadal snaps one off to the forehand, letting the element of surprise pay exceptional dividends. On faster courts, opponents who drive through the ball and penetrate with depth and force -- James Blake, Mikhail Youzhny, Novak Djokovic and yes, that guy Roger -- can make it hard for Nadal. But on the slow stuff, his exceptional footspeed makes him supreme at immediately building a point on his terms.

"In a way, on clay it's a lot more simple for Nadal than Federer," said Australian legend Fred Stolle. "Federer's got a lot of things to figure out, but Nadal, he knows exactly what he's got to do."

But beyond these technical and tactical matters, there's the matter of Nadal's mental and emotional approach. In recent years, Spain and its network of academies have drawn praise for churning out so many fine players. The most notable include French Open champions as Sergei Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero. But there have also been others, including Russians such as Marat Safin and Svetlana Kuznetsova and Great Britain's Andy Murray, each of whom who honed their games as teenagers in Barcelona.

As a child, Nadal, too, was given the chance to go and train in Barcelona. He declined. Instead, Nadal opted to remain on Mallorca, the tranquil island where he was raised, and hone his game under the tutelage of his uncle, Toni. Home schooling is invariably suspect and risky, but in Nadal's case, the rewards were tremendous. Left to his own devices, given both personal attention and autonomy, freed from the gaze and discipline of institutions, left alone to choose tennis more than have it thrust on him, Nadal sharpened not just his strokes, but his hunger and love of competition. In a sport where self-reliance and individualism mean everything, Nadal has very much become his own person.

Nadal's exceptional passion is a sharp contrast to the fate of many of his countrymen, a number of whom are quite skilled but also grind themselves into near-ennui. Moya and Ferrero, for example, each put so much effort into earning one precious French Open crown that they've never since shown as much intensity.

Nadal's intensity is his greatest asset. From the minute he walks on the court, he compels, bouncing during the coin toss, focusing through the warmup, his eyes narrowing like a hawk. Fans have come to love the way Nadal throws himself into every point. If his clay-court success has its technical roots in the attrition-based manner of Guillermo Vilas and Thomas Muster, his comfort in the cauldron summons up the likes of Jimmy Connors. Add to that the unidentifiable X-factor that made Bjorn Borg so popular, and Nadal is one of the most charismatic tennis players of the last 20 years.

If there's no doubting Nadal's emotional commitment, the physical output his game requires raises many questions. Already he's experienced several ailments, including a foot injury in 2005 that he worried would end his career.

Forecasting how he will evolve is difficult. Nearly 30 years ago, for example, a prominent tennis writer opined that, "Reckless, bold, intense tennis is the only kind Connors plays. It is not difficult to envision Borg playing his crafty game well beyond his [30th] year, but it is impossible to imagine Connors making many adjustments in his technique." And yet, precisely the opposite occurred. Borg was gone from tennis by age 25, while Connors endured to 40.

Desire, at least these days, appears to be Nadal's soulmate.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.