A week since La Decima, we’ve all run out of superlatives to describe the brilliance of Rafael Nadal, particularly on clay. Many would argue that we had run out of those particular adjectives years ago. So instead of thinking of bigger and better ways to describe the King of Clay — we’ll completely give it a pass. Let’s instead talk about what might lie ahead for him on other surfaces, with regular clay court season now 10 months away.
The ‘King of Clay’ moniker, in many ways, actually does disservice to Nadal. Sure he has won 67% of his majors on terre battue — twice as many as his combined tally elsewhere — but even if one were to remove the absolutely unparalleled numbers that the Spaniard has mustered on clay, he’s still an all-time great on the rest of the surfaces.
He’s won two Grand Slams each at Wimbledon and the US Open, one at the Australian Open. Furthermore, he has been runners-up thrice each at SW19 and Melbourne, and once in New York. Not to mention that his 2008 Olympic Gold Medal also came on the hard in Beijing. It was only this year that he lost the Australian Open final to Roger Federer, which kick-started the revival for the duo considered by many to be the greatest tennis players of all time.
But we all know what Nadal has done in the past. It’s always Nadal’s future that’s been a perpetual mirage of uncertainty — most of all in the 10-time Roland Garros champion’s own head — since the moment he turned pro on the ATP tour.
With few doubting Nadal’s ability to add to his Grand Slam tally in Paris, can the current World No. 2 win a major outside of Roland Garros? Would he add to his tally of 15 Grand Slam titles, before he eyes yet another title at the French Open?
In Nadal’s three most successful seasons — 2008, 2010, and 2013 — he managed to win majors after mopping up the dirt in Paris. The 2008 Roland Garros title was followed by Wimbledon, and the Olympic Gold; in 2010 he won Wimbledon and the US; while in 2013 he bagged the US in what was a clean sweep of the North American hard court swing — winning ATP 1000 titles at Cincinnati and Montreal, before it rounding off with the title at Flushing Meadows.
Can Nadal repeat any of those feats this year?
The form book suggests that Nadal is playing the best tennis of his life. He replicated his best tally on European clay: winning four out of potential five titles, culminating in the French Open win. He only lost 35 games in the fortnight in Paris — the lowest he has ever conceded, and the lowest ever at a major since Bjorn Borg’s 32 at the French in 1978. The only other times Nadal has won Roland Garros without dropping a set — 2008 and 2010 — he has won Wimbledon after the French.
Furthermore, even if one were to observe Nadal’s game in isolation, there are marked improvements that were first visible Down Under in January. His serve clearly is as good as it has ever been, and he has probably never hit his backhand better — it’s flatter and has allowed Nadal to use it aggressively as well, without having to run around his forehand as he customarily loves to do.
Even so, while Nadal might’ve regained his aura of invincibility on clay, and might indeed be playing his best tennis since at least 2013, what has undoubtedly helped his cause was the decline of his immediate rivals.
The top two players over the past couple of years, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have collectively hit their respective slumps. The latter’s has been more pronounced, resulting in him dropping out of the top three for the first time since 2009. Murray is still clinging on to his World No 1 ranking was out of song throughout the season, but would have to win virtually every single tournament till the end of the year — replicating his performance from 2016 — to keep hold of his spot at the top.
What this has meant is that Nadal’s rise has coincided with the plunge of the top two, with Federer — having swept the first two ATP 1000s and the Australian Open — opting out of the clay swing altogether. What this also means is that Nadal’s chances of adding to his silverware would also depend on how everyone else performs in the second half of the season.
The past five years of Federer’s career have been aimed at winning that elusive 8th Wimbledon title that would break his tie with Sampras for the most in men’s tennis at SW19. This year was going to be no different, and Federer has even admitted that winning the Australian Open “wasn’t a part of the plan.” But just as we suggest that Nadal’s clay form has been the best he’s played in years, Federer’s game before that was the best he has been for a while — arguably, even more so than Nadal.
If Federer can play even 90% of that he should win Wimbledon next month. Couple that with the fact that Djokovic, who beat Federer in the 2014 and 2015 finals, is completely out of sorts, on paper the Swiss needs to match his runs from those two years to win Wimbledon.
Defending champion Andy Murray might have gained some confidence from his semifinal run at Roland Garros, where a Stan Wawrinka freight train outdid him. His wins over Juan Martin Del Potro and Kei Nishikori suggest that he is nearing his best just in time for the grass season — his preferred surface.
Murray’s performance at Queen’s starting tomorrow, and Federer’s at Hamburg, in the lead up to Wimbledon would be crucial — especially after the Swiss’ first round loss in Stuttgart. But these two are the clear favourites for Wimbledon.
Other challengers on grass would be spearheaded by Milos Raonic — last year’s Wimbledon finalist who beat Federer in the semi. But there is a good chance that Nadal would go further at Wimbledon than he has since the 2011 final, with a fourth round finish in 2014 his best finish since then.
If Nadal manages to fight his way to the last four — and he has always had his work cut out in the first few rounds at Wimbledon even when he was making the final every year — he might even fancy his chances of going all the way.
If the draw keeps them in two separate halves, we could yet have another Fedal installment in the final. The way this year has panned out, with the duo splitting the first two majors, it would indeed be a fitting finale.