As preposterous as it may sound, but Rafael Nadal hasn’t ever completely swept the clay season in its entirety. The Spaniard usually participates in three ATP 1000 (Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome), one ATP 500 (Barcelona) and one major (Roland Garros) events this time of the year, and shockingly he hasn’t been able to win all of these in a single season.
Of course, the fact that we are even discussing a five-tournament sweep within two months on the most grueling tennis surface is owing to the all-time highs that the World No 1 continues to redefine — and not just in tennis.
Nadal, for whom clay court records have been falling like dominoes for the past 13 years, is currently on even his own hottest ever streak on the surface, after having won the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open for the 11th time each last month.
Going back to Rome Masters last year, Nadal has now won 46 straight sets on clay — bettering his own previous record of 32 sets in 2010-11. Also, only in one of these sets did Nadal lose more than four games, with Martin Klizan providing the most dramatic moments of the clay court season so far, when he had set points against Rafa.
Yes, that is what the clay court has boiled down to: a competition to take sets off Rafael Nadal.
Many would argue that despite the all-conquering exploits of the Spaniard, the competition isn’t nearly as stiff for him. However, what is also a fact is that in his current 19-match and 46-set winning streak, Nadal has actually played six Top 10 players.
Dominic Thiem, touted as the second-best clay court player as things stand, was brushed aside 6-0, 6-2 in the Monte Carlo quarters. The next biggest challengers Grigor Dmitrov (6-4, 6-1 in the Monte Carlo semi-final) and Alexander Zverev (6-1, 6-4, 6-4 in Davis Cup) were similarly dismantled.
Over the past 13 years, the only player who has challenged — and even beaten — Rafael Nadal in his top form on clay, was Novak Djokovic in his peak years. With Djokovic a shadow of himself following a return from injury, and Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka absent owing to an array of reason, can Nadal really lose a match this clay season?
Barring an injury flaring up, that is really the question over the next tennis month starting with the ongoing Madrid Masters, then Rome and Rolland Garros: can Nadal sweep the clay?
Between 2005 and 2010, more often than not, the only reason Nadal never won all five clay tournaments in the season was because he would withdraw from one of them to preserve himself for Roland Garros. For instance, even though he swept all three Masters 1000 — and Roland Garros — in 2010, he didn’t participate in Barcelona, citing fatigue.
2011 onwards saw the rise of Djokovic, along with Murray and Wawrinka also winning a few Masters 1000 on clay, with Nadal only winning two of the nine Masters 1000 from 2014 to 2016. Vintage Nadal returned last year, as he bagged four out of the five clay court titles, only losing to Thiem in the Rome quarters as he looked visibly below par owing to the volume of tennis his aging body had played.
So, will we see fatigue undoing Nadal in one of Madrid or Rome — especially the latter, because the former comes after a week-long break, and Rome immediately follows Madrid — as he tries to conserve his energy for an assault on the trophy that matters the most to him — the French Open?
However, the counter-argument is that considering he has won all the sets he has played this clay season, only one of which has been competitive, is there really any fatigue in play? But then again he’ll turn 32 next month, and if he needed rest a decade ago, he would sure as hell need it right now.
Another angle in play here is Nadal’s current World No 1 ranking, which he regained after Federer lost early in Miami. For the Spaniard to remain atop the rankings going into the grass court season, he would have to win Madrid and Roland Garros and make at least the quarters in Rome — i.e. a repeat of last season.
While both Nadal and Federer have downplayed their stints at the top of the rankings, it is evident that it has been a factor in their scheduling, with the Swiss playing the Rotterdam Masters in February to become the oldest ever World No 1.
The Spaniard might replicate and play Rome this year to keep hold of the ranking, which he could have easily skipped otherwise for a good two-week rest before Roland Garros.
Nadal would be hoping that the decision doesn’t jeopardise his bid for an 11th French Open, for it is evident that only a freak incident — an injury or an out of the blue performance by an opponent — looks like undoing him this clay season.
But if all works out for Nadal, he could be looking at his first ever complete sweep of the clay season, which he could potentially end with 33 ATP Masters 1000, 17 Grand Slam titles and the World No 1 ranking.
Can he do it all without losing a set, though?