FEDEX RELIABILITY ZONE
Career Clay-Court Records
Rafael Nadal has the best career clay-court
wins percentage in ATP World Tour history
according to the FedEx Reliability Zone.
Combining insights from clay-court greats with revealing statistics from the FedEx Reliability Index, we explore the key ingredients for success during the European clay swing, which is arguably the most demanding – and important – period of the ATP World Tour season.
Thomas Muster, who's big-ripping, dual-winged baseline aggression was the forerunner of today’s clay-court game, says simply, "Playing on clay, in my mind, was the greatest test in tennis."
And there’s no greater test on clay than the European clay-court swing. With three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments - the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, the Mutua Madrid Open - and Roland Garros as the highlights, this stretch can determine a player's success or failure for the whole year.
Gustavo Kuerten, a three-time titlist in Paris, who compiled a 181-78 record on clay courts including 14 titles, told ATPWorldTour.com, "In my opinion the heart has a direct link with the clay. You have to get involved and practice for hours."
Clay-court greats Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg, Kuerten and Muster all know about the perils that await players who aren't physically and mentally prepared. Each mastered the surface and earned the nickname "King of Clay" for their red dirt heroics.
Six-time Roland Garros champion Borg, who regularly trained with his coach Lennart Bergelin at the Monte-Carlo Country Club, told ATPWorldTour.com, "When you are physically tired, you soon become mentally tired, and then you start to have trouble concentrating. When you're tired you're less patient during rallies, you take risks and in the long run that always means losing matches.
"I trained a lot to be fitter than my rivals and ready for my matches. But the game has changed a lot since I played and now more guys are capable of winning and are stronger on multiple surfaces."
Kuerten agrees with Borg. "Nowadays the major part of being a tennis player is getting regular results on all kinds of courts.
"The reasons for the diversity of players are physical conditioning, differences in speed of how hard the balls are hit and the variance of strategy. The same tennis players have been standing out on all kinds of court and therefore tennis has levelled off in recent years."
Over the past four years, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have largely held the top four positions in the South African Airways ATP Rankings. But one player has been pre-eminent on clay courts.
The 24-year-old Nadal has captured five Roland Garros titles in six years. Since 2005 he has compiled a 177-6 match record - 2005, 50-2; 2006, 26-0; 2007, 31-1; 2008, 24-1; 2009, 23-2; 2010, 22-0 - and his last clay-court loss came to Robin Soderling in the last 16 at 2009 Roland Garros.
In ATP history, since 1973, Nadal leads the FedEx Reliability Index for career clay-court matches with a 204-16 mark and 29 titles (.927 per cent). Borg is second overall with a 245-39 record and 30 titles (.863), followed by Ivan Lendl with a 329-75 record and 29 titles (.814).
Muster, the 1995 Roland Garros winner, has no doubts about why Nadal heads the current generation of players on red dirt. "Nadal has dominated because he has every shot in the book and because of the way he plays the angles,” Muster told ATPWorldTour.com. “To win on clay, you have to have fantastic endurance, be powerful and flexible, a complete player. I always thought you needed to be physically fit and have ever shot. Nadal has that.
"If you win the first set on clay, it is mentally hard for anyone to come back. We see this so often with Nadal. If he wins the first set, then the match is as good as done. If I lost the first set, it didn't matter, because I was always physically fit. If you are strong, then mentally you are fresh."
Carlos Moya, who like Nadal, lives in Mallorca, and once mentored the current World No. 1, told ATPWorldTour.com, "It is hard to name just one thing [why Nadal is ahead of his rivals on clay] but it is a mix of many different things. The effects he puts on the ball, how hard he hits, his mentality and of course his fitness level."
Kuerten believes Nadal's dominance has not helped but hindered the development of other clay court talent. "It has not benefited, I think exactly the opposite. His dominance has so astonished [everyone] that it has meant that all tennis players have stagnated on a level lower than him."
"Spain has always had so many good clay-court players," says Borg. "They grow up on clay and develop their games as kids, so it is no wonder that Nadal feels at home on the surface."
One such player, World No. 4 Murray, who trained in Barcelona during his teenage years, but is more comfortable these days on hard-courts, admitted at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters this week, that he always take a bit of time to get used to the surface.
"Because I don't play a lot on clay, it always takes me a bit of time to get used to it: the sliding, which shots to hit at the right time," said the Scot. "Shot selection on clay is definitely different to the other surfaces." His thoughts may mirror the majority of players on the ATP World Tour.
While some perfect their balance and top-spin ground strokes for the clay-court grind, Nadal is far too professional to admit to having one eye already on Roland Garros.
"It's impossible to have the control of this [my form]," said Nadal at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters. "If you are playing well now, I try my best every week. I don't know how to be at perfect condition for Roland Garros. I try to be at my 100 per cent in every place that I play."
Kuerten, who retired in 2008, openly admits to longing for his trip to Paris in late May. "Always, always. When the European circuit started, every week I felt a private desire and this increased the anxiety to go to Roland Garros."
Muster, who is third-placed in ATP history behind Guillermo Vilas and Manuel Orantes for most clay-court match wins (422-126 overall record), said, "I always focused on Roland Garros as I moved through the European clay swing. I wanted to make sure that I was not over tired, so sometimes I would skip tournaments in between, to stay physically strong.
"When I played you had to earn every point at every tournament, now with the courts and the balls slowing the game down, it is different. I wanted to play as well as I could at every tournament, get wins under my belt and build my confidence ahead of Roland Garros."
In 2010, Nadal became the first player to win the three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 clay-court and Roland Garros titles. But Muster believes Djokovic - unbeaten so far this season - has a shot at challenging Nadal's dominance on clay
"Nadal is the clear favourite to win again at Roland Garros," says Muster, "but Djokovic could challenge him. He can play well on clay and his unbeaten run of matches will have helped him confidence."
Kuerten also provides words of encouragement for 2009 Roland Garros champion Federer, who recently dropped to No. 3 in the South African Airways 2011 ATP Rankings, on how he can improve on clay courts.
"It's admirable to watch Roger playing in any kind of court, it's wonderful," said Kuerten. "But he needs to improve his resistance level and also take his game to a higher level to gain more power. Nadal knows how to do it, [as] he always plays with power and can raise his level quickly."
Will Djokovic, Federer or another player break the tradition of Nadal's dominance of European courts? Moya is in no doubt. "I think Rafa will dominate the clay season, he might lose a match on his way to Paris, but I think once there, under normal circumstances, nobody can beat him [over the] best of five sets." Over the next 10 weeks we'll find out.