Rafa Nadal King of Clay Prince of Hard
Rafa Nadal, a tennis player pigeon holed early on in his career as a clay courter has become joint second on the leader board of the world’s most prestigious hard court Major, the US Open.
Rafa Nadal has now won 4 US Open titles- in 2010, 2013, 2017, and 2019. He sits alongside John McEnroe in second place and behind, in the open era, Connors, Sampras, and Federer with five. He’s joint third all time, with pre-Open era champions William Larned, Richard Sears, and Bill Tilden having seven apiece, Tilden winning the last of all those titles in 1929.
The US Open has the lowest number record for most titles won by one player-five- of all the slams- Nadal having 12 at Roland Garros, Federer eight at Wimbledon, and Djokovic seven at the Australian Open. That could be due to it reputedly being the toughest slam to win with the once punishing schedule- Super Saturday (in which the semi-finals were played the day before the final); the heat, second after Melbourne in its brutality and often just as punishing in its humidity; and the noise- the planes to and from LaGuardia, the loudspeakers carrying sounds from one court to another, and the constant chatter of the crowd, and it being the fourth Major of an already gruelling season, which may account for why no man has managed to defend the title since Roger Federer in 2008.
Four times Nadal has focused enough to come through all the challenges of winning in New York and his latest US Open win means he has won 19 Majors- 12 titles at Roland Garros, 4 at the US Open, 2 at Wimbledon and 1 at the Australian Open.
Nadal’s wins at each of the game’s four slams has earned him membership into one of tennis’ loftiest club- those who have won the Career Slam. He’s one of only eight men to do so- Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic the others, and one of only four men to do it on three surfaces.
The US Open, for Nadal, was the last piece of the puzzle (for Agassi, Federer and Djokovic it was the French, for Budge the Australian, for Laver it was, like Nadal, the USO), but it’s now the Major at which he has the second biggest haul of trophies, after Roland Garros.
With Nadal’s fourth US Open win and 19th Major, there comes plenty of debate as to who is the Greatest of all time, a debate which can never really, unlike a Major final, be won. Comparing players and their achievements over the years is hard in tennis as the conditions are so variable.
The US Open surface Nadal won that 2010 title was not as fast as the one Federer first won on or that McEnroe won on. The New York surface has been modified in recent years to provide a higher bounce, and a slower one, too, the ball gripping the court a fraction longer, closer to how the ball does on the Roland Garros Clay than say the Australian Open.
Nevertheless, the pro DecoTurf surface is still a hard court with its unforgiving nature on the knees, the different demands it makes on a player’s movement, and the bounce, while it may be slower and the ball sits higher, is still lower than that of Clay, the trajectory still more hard court than clay, and the ball, on a hot, dry sunny day, can still fly through the court.
Nadal, who won Roland Garros as a 19 year old in his first main draw appearance first adapted his game successfully to grass, utilizing the slice, coming to the net and flattening out his shots when needed, then modified it fruitfully to adapt to hard, winning the Australian Open in 2009, but while those modifications have helped him achieve the career slam and rack up all time great stats at two of them, it’s the sound structural qualities of his game which have got him to where he currently stands as a legend of the game.
The serve, when on, gleans him plenty of freebies; the forehand, especially the down the line one, winners galore; the backhand holds up to pressure if need be; the aggressive baseline game which makes him such a great claycourter means he can better anyone from the back of the court, from where most of the tour play, forcing the errors which make up so many points won in a match; the net game, one of the best in the game gives him the edge over those who do not venture forward; the tactical nous means he can use all his skills and shots to outplay anyone; the touch on the drop shot adds the element of surprise; and perhaps most of all, his mental toughness means he can come out strong and come back, if he slips, even stronger. Those qualities have combined to produce a game that would succeed on any surface on which you could paint tramlines and bounce a ball.
There are no weaknesses and every little modification- being more aggressive, taking the ball earlier, flattening out the shorts, tinkering with the service motion-just help build on one of the game’s best ever bases give him even greater versatility when the need calls for it.
Then there’s his being a lefty- who, of all the righties out there, other than Novak Djokovic, goes backhand to forehand with Nadal on any surface in a big match and might be favored to survive?
Nadal’s cross surface success has much to do with his versatility not just as a player, but as a champion too, and he has won each of his US Open in both similar and different styles.
In 2010, Nadal was arguably in his best ever form, the world No.1, Roland Garros and Wimbledon champion, turning up in New York with his deadliest ever serve, a huge forehand down the line and on a mission to complete the career slam, defeating Novak Djokovic, just a few months off his 2011 form, in four sets in the final, that dropped set his first of the championships.
In 2013, Nadal had returned to the tour after seven months out with a knee injury, winning his fourth event back, in Indian Wells, won Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros, and picked himself up from a first round Wimbledon loss to Steve Darcis to win Montreal and Cincy back to back. At the US Open, his great run leading into the event, securing him the second seed, paid off with a generous draw- a wild card, in Ryan Harrison in the first round, qualifier Rogerio Dutra da Silva in round 2, Ivan Dodig in round 3 (Dodig beating Verdasco and Davydenko en route), 22nd seed Philipp Kohlschreiber in round 4, a match which saw Nadal drop his first set of the championships, Federer’s conqueror Tommy Robredo in the last eight and Richard Gasquet in the semis. In the final, Nadal beat a bruised Djokovic, the Serbian coming off a five setter versus Stan Wawrinka and struggling mentally after a string of bruising Major defeats, none more dispiriting than his five set Roland Garros semi-final loss to Nadal. While 2010 had been all imperious run to the title for Nadal, 2013 had been, while still impressive form wise, more about keeping your head while everyone around you is losing theirs.
In 2017, Nadal was back to his best, winning Roland Garros after a two year La Coupe des Mouquetaire trophy biting hiatus, and was by far the best player in the USO draw with Federer having one of his bad days versus del Potro and Djokovic slumping. That 2017 victory was asterisked by some for the draw Nadal made his way through– Dusan Lajovic, Taro Daniel, Leonardo Mayer, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Andrey Rublev, Juan Martin del Potro, and Kevin Anderson. That asterisk has little effect on the record books, however- Nadal was the champion; he did not succumb to a bad day at the office, his body was in working order, and he had no issue dealing with opponents who had upset higher seeds. Amid all the hype and noise, being a champion is a less than glamorous affair, an almost workmanlike drudgery to earn the kudos.
This 2019, we saw a little bit of everything of Nadal- a champion making his way to the title with a pinch of luck, heaps of grit, and truckloads of champion’s instinct.
His game, further modified due to age and injury- a more efficient service motion, a more aggressive mind set, was also, given the right draw and conditions, which he was, well-primed for the task ahead.
From the very start of the tournament when Nadal walked on court looking ripped, stylish and on trend in his black and purple get up, and fresh- did anyone in the draw look as ready and eager as Nadal from the very first ball this US Open?-he had US Open 2019 Champion etched in the sweat above his brow.
Once again, the second seed benefitted from a favorable draw with Djokovic and Federer seeded to meet in the top half semis and potentially put each other through hell as they did at Wimbledon. Nadal defeated John Millman in round 1 in straights, had a walkover in round 2 versus Thanasi Kokkinakis, beat Hyeon Chung in straights, dropped a set to Marin Cilic, straight setted Sascha Zverev’s conqueror Diego Schwartzman, and defeated Matteo Berretini in straights on his way to the final.
There were struggles in those sets, battles within the war, but so there should be in a Major, and like the champion he is, Nadal came through them and made the final.
He had not had to face an in form Djokovic or Federer, but they had not had to face and beat an in form Nadal in their RG victory campaigns. That is how tennis works- you play who is across the net.
You play yourself, too, and when Nadal has struggled, he has had confidence issues, and in the final he would have to beat both Daniil Medvedev and his own self-belief.
The championship match was as good as we could have hoped for. No one can ever say Nadal did not earn his 2019 US Open trophy win. The final saw the Canada Champ go up against the Cincy one, the two best players of the US Summer hard court swing going head to head, one of the New Gen versus a legend of the game.
When Nadal led by two sets and a break, the narrative seemed to be that Medvedev had worn himself out making his fourth hard court final of the stretch and that Nadal was just too, well, Nadal. But Medvedev dug deep, broke back and won the third and fourth sets in an electric match, which in the fifth saw Nadal serving for it only for Medvedev to break back and stay in contention.
Nadal finally won 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 and as a video played showing his 19 Major wins, the tears came. This meant something a little more, by as small a margin as Major champs are split, than the other wins. Even at the age of 33 with his body breaking down in the AO and USO Semis in 2018, with his game seemingly far far off the pace in hard court Major finals as had been the case at the start of the season in Melbourne, Nadal was still able to come through what the 2019 ATP tour had to offer and win arguably the toughest Major of all, closing the all-time Major haul list with Federer down to one, and go five sets with the best hard courter in the game aged 23 and under, and go all the way.
Four US Open victories, second on the all-time list. In an age where Players are judged on their Major titles like never before, Nadal will not be seen as a clay courter, but as an all surface player who just happened to be the greatest ever on Clay.
The King of Clay, a prince on Hard. Not a bad living epitaph if you can earn it.
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