With the 2019 French Open well underway at Roland Garros, all eyes are firmly fixed on Spain’s prodigal son. With a win this year, Rafael Nadal would shatter the record for most wins of a single tournament – a record which he himself already owns. Since 2005, Nadal has captured an unprecedented 11/14 French Opens. Whilst Rafa is the betting favourite, victory is far from assured. In recent years the biggest threat to Nadal’s dominance has often been his own health. However, with his injuries now seemingly rehabilitated, we may very well be seeing a rejuvenated Rafa on the clay court this year – a terrifying prospect for the rest of the tennis world.
So far it has been business as usual for Rafa. He barely missed a beat in his first two matches, running through a duo of German opponents in straight sets. However, despite winning handily his concentration seemed to dip in the final set. Similarly, despite looking untouchable in the first two sets of his 3rd round match-up with Belgium’s number 1, David Goffin, once again Nadal seemed to fall victim to his own game and dropped his first set of the tournament. Better to get any such carelessness out of the way early, as a lapse in intensity in the latter rounds against fiercer competition will be severely punished. What’s more, the razor-thin margin for error is cut in half when you take into account the return of Roger Federer, who is playing in Roland Garros for the first time in four years.
Often you hear expressions such as “clay courts are slower” and “grass is faster.” These are absolutely true. However, expressions like this often serve to misrepresent the true nature of the court. Whilst the statements are accurate, they seem to perpetuate a myth that a clay-court specialist is less able to keep up with the physicality of the grass or hard court game. In fact, the higher bounce awarded by the clay court sees less winners and aces being hit, which brings about longer, more intense rallies as every point becomes a chess match which drags the player into the depths of their gas tanks. The common, and quite understandable knee-jerk reaction is that a slower game means slower players. In reality, the clay game is even more physically demanding than grass or hard courts. Rafa’s success is in no short part down to his unbelievable conditioning, which allows him to battle for every point over the two-week marathon. When combined with Rafa’s virtuoso use of top spin, and his mastery of playing behind the baseline, the clay courts of Roland Garros are tailor-made for the Spaniard. If Roger Federer is the shark who can bite off a head at a moment’s notice, Nadal is the octopus, who will drag its prey to the bottom of the ocean. If Novak Djokovic is George Foreman looking for the KO punch in round 1, Nadal is Muhammed Ali bouncing off the ropes looking for the 8th round stoppage.
The concept of a home-court advantage is not one you often hear when discussing tennis, however, it is a real phenomenon in other sports. When former UFC Middleweight Champion, Michael Bisping was defending his belt in front of 16,000 in his hometown at the Manchester Arena, he would be able to tell you the significance of a homecourt advantage, especially when he was dropped by a massive overhand in the first round before storming back to win a unanimous decision. The fight did not begin until 5am in order to be broadcasted to transatlantic audiences, yet this did not falter the support in the slightest. If you were playing for the Denver Nuggets in the NBA, you would be the beneficiary of one of the most significant homecourt advantages in North America. Denver’s home games take place at the Pepsi Center, an arena whose altitude is significantly higher than the rest of the teams in the league. As a result, the Nuggets are acclimatised to playing in more demanding conditions. Consequently, the other 29 teams are forced to prepare mentally and physically for weeks before travelling to Denver in attempt to nullify the concept of homecourt advantage.
On the contrary, as tennis is played individually across seasonal tournaments all across the globe, the concept of a home-court advantage is far less prevalent. The four major tennis tournaments take place in the UK, USA, France, and Australia. Whilst the support for Andy Murray no doubt played a significant role in his 2013 and 2016 Wimbledon, for Spaniard Rafael Nadal, Swiss Roger Federer, and Serbian Novak Djokovic the most important games of their careers have taken place on foreign ground. However, whilst some teams and athletes have utilised the fans and the elements of a particular city to their advantage, Rafael Nadal has truly captured dominance over all courts clay, and consequently he essentially has homecourt advantage regardless of the location. An unprecedented achievement.
Ultimately, the reasons for Nadal’s trailblazing success on clay, whilst possible to understand, have proved nearly impossible to imitate. Nadal has written and published the blueprint for how to succeed on the clay courts, yet nobody, not even the GOAT, Roger Federer, has been able to use this toolbox of tennis tricks to their own sustained gain. Following yesterday’s win, ‘El Gladiador’ moves to 89-2 at Roland Garros. What Rafa does, remarkable as it is, is not revolutionary. He wins time and time again by being patient, playing off the backfoot, winning a war of attrition, before finally toppling his exhausted opponent. Federer’s French Open trophy must look extremely lonely on his mantlepiece, but it does serve as proof that an attacking game can be successful on the clay court. However, with an 89-2 record at Roland Garros, and a trophy case ready to burst, there can be no debate that Rafa’s tactics are undisputed.
[Featured Image Credits : Clive Brunskill @ Getty Images].