The clay-court season is in full swing (for the novitiate, the tennis year is roughly divided into a hardcourt session, then clay, then grass, then back to hard courts) and the reigning king of the red gook is rising above the proletariat yet again. He's the young, handsome, dashing Spaniard with the playful broken English and penchant for picking his underwear out of his butt between points. He's the three-time defending French Open champ. He's ranked number two in the world.
He's Rafael Nadal, back up to his usual tricks while basically playing in the mud.
After winning the first two main clay court tourneys of the season, he spent this morning bashing Novak Djokovic around the court in the semifinal of the Hamburg Open, and in doing so, demonstrated why he has likely already displaced the likes of Bjorn Borg as the greatest clay-courter of all time.
Nadal on clay echoes the same level of dominance of Federer the Great on hard and grass courts, and his performance against Djokovic, ranked third in the world and having an amazing season of his own, puts it into specific relief. In the eyes of the Tipsy Historian, there are two fundamental buttresses underlying this greatness: his unbelievable power and aggression, and his unflappable consistency.
Clay court tennis is the ultimate test of tennis skill on many levels. Because the surface is granular and, well, clay, it plays very slowly, meaning that pace generated by the racket head in a swing is absorbed by the court itself. This gives the opponent more opportunity to track down a heavy ball. This makes for long points and tremendous amounts of running, thus putting one's fitness through the wringer.
It also usually nullifies the weapons that set the top players apart, read: Pete Sampras' serve (he never got past the quarters at the French). Those who usually do well on clay are players who grow up playing on the surface, and the fact that Americans rarely play on clay growing up and frankly suck on the surface at the professional level proves this point.
I say usually because Nadal's incredible power breaks through the limitations that clay uses to lock up the games of lesser lights. The guy moves across the court like butter on a hot skillet, and assaults the ball as if it said something about his mamma.
He imparts an unprecedented amount of spin, pace, and energy into the ball off both the forehand and backhand, and his left arm (he's a southpaw) bears mute testimony to this.
Seriously, the dude looks like someone glued He-Man's arm onto an otherwise quite respectably muscled body. And the movement of the ball on the other side of the court is the consequence. Nadal can absolutely dissect a court with his power and spin, putting the ball shoulder-high, making it hard for anyone to keep up.
So there's the power and aggression, but, hey, people get sets off him, right? Federer took him to 5 sets at Roland Garros last year, so he must be flawed, right?
Wrong, because he backs up this brute force with unbelievable consistency, basically the guy doesn't miss. He's like a seasoned basketball team that doesn't commit turnovers or stupid fouls; he doesn't give anything away.
Don't believe me? Today at Hamburg he went three sets with Novak Djokovic. In the first set, which he won 7-5, he committed 9 unforced errors. In the second set, which he lost 6-2, he committed 8 (Djokovic, to his credit, raised his game a notch) In the third and deciding set, Nadal only committed six unforced errors. SIX! And that was when it really counted. Guess what, he won the third set 6-2.
It's that magical combination of power and consistency that puts him at the top of the clay court game. He'll outhit you if it takes him all afternoon, and tomorrow, he puts it on the line against Federer the Great in the final. Oh yes, the DVR is set, and I'll get back at you tomorrow.