When Rafael Nadal arrives in Paris this season with a chance to win his 11th French Open title, he could be there in a way no one expected: better than ever on clay.
Nadal, who will be 32 years old in June, should have been finished by now, especially on clay. It’s rare for players older than 30 to win the French Open, and Nadal had been on a downward trend. He didn’t win the tournament in 2015 or 2016, and he won just two clay tournaments in 2015. Even worse, he lost to Novak Djokovic that year in the French Open quarterfinals, a sure sign that he was no longer invincible. (Djokovic won in straight sets, including a deadly 6-1 in the third.) A year later, Nadal left the French Open after winning two rounds because of a wrist injury. Even at his best in those two years, he looked well behind Djokovic, who beat Nadal seven times in a row without losing a set, including three on clay.
But instead of crumbling, Nadal has climbed back and become more dominant on clay than ever before. He’s done it with more powerful strokes, a stronger serve and more volleys — and, most important, the confidence that seemed to escape him several years ago. Since the start of last year’s French Open, Nadal hasn’t lost a set on clay in three tournaments plus two Davis Cup matches. That’s an all-time record of 46 clay court sets in a row, smashing the former record of 35 consecutive clay wins by Guillermo Coria. Nadal has come close to this before, too: Four other times in his career he won 30 or more consecutive sets on clay, according to the ATP World Tour.
But Nadal isn’t just winning matches on the surface he loves; he’s dominating them. Nadal’s dominance ratio, which is the measure of a player’s winning percentage when returning serve versus the opponent’s winning percentage on serve return points, is at the highest it’s ever been over the past two years. Essentially, his opponents are never safe on the court — Nadal can win any point at any time. In Barcelona this year, Martin Klizan lost his first set against Nadal at love, but he broke Nadal’s serve in the second set and led 5-3. Nadal held serve and then saved three set points against him to tie up the set at 5-5. Nadal proceeded to win the next two games to close out the match.
Tennis has never seen a player who excels more on a single surface than Nadal. His career on clay boggles the mind. He owns a record that, in tennis, doesn’t compute — it shouldn’t be possible. His overall record on clay is 401-35: Yes, that’s 92 percent. In the Open era, which began in 1968, no other star in tennis has come close to that on any surface. The next highest winning percentage on clay comes from Bjorn Borg, who won 86 percent of his clay court matches — and he played far fewer matches than Nadal (294 in all on clay). The best players on other surfaces don’t match Nadal, either. Roger Federer has won eight Wimbledon titles, an all-time record, and 87 percent of his matches on grass, in 188 attempts. Pete Sampras, a seven-time Wimbledon winner, won 84 percent of his 121 total matches on grass. And Djokovic, winner of six titles at the Australian Open and two at the U.S. Open, has an 84 percent winning percentage in his 609 hard court matches.
For all his dominance, the only accomplishment Nadal has yet to achieve is going undefeated in the four premier clay court tournaments1 and then winning the French Open in a single season. The closest he came was in 2013, when he lost the Monte Carlo final to Djokovic and then won his next four clay events, including the French Open. Last year was similar for Nadal: He won four clay tournaments but lost in the quarterfinals at the Italian Open, in straight sets to Dominic Thiem. He later thumped Thiem in straight sets in the French Open semifinals, finishing the match with a 6-0 set.
For Nadal to win in Madrid and Italy this year, he’ll need to stay healthy and play as few taxing games as possible, as he has done so far. But no matter what happens in those tourneys, unless he’s hurt, he’ll be the heavy favorite to win the French Open, where his record is 79-2. Don’t be surprised if that turns into 86-2 come June.