In the year 2020, it’s become cliché to call Rafael Nadal, “The King of Clay.” He’s dominated the French Open for so long, we’ve been calling him that since the release of the iPhone 4S.
After collecting his 13th Coupe des Mousquetaires this past October, his cache of titles dwarfs the smooth Swede’s stockpile of six. Here are 13 reasons why he has so many damn titles:
Nadal never surrenders. He’s tenacious. He’s the definition of dirtballer. The Spanish System’s mantra is to embrace suffering—and no one embodies that better than Nadal.
Nadal’s professional career started at 15 in 2001. Still in prime shape at 34, Rafa dispatched Djokovic in straight sets—leaving him befuddled and without an answer. Many pundits predicted that due to his grueling style of play, Rafa’s career would be cut short by injuries. Welp, it looks like they were wrong.
Nope, not core stability—although he’s got that too—but emotional stability garnered from sticking to routines, surrounding himself with loyal and supportive friends and family, and spending quality time at his beloved island home of Mallorca.
We might all collectively snicker when Nadal lines up his water bottles just so, incessantly picks at his wedgie, scampers around and leaps like a frightened field rabbit after the coin toss, or jumps like a kangaroo in the stadium’s underbelly—but these routines bring him comfort and provide stability.
Rafa’s Uncle Toni was a stalwart in the player’s box for so many years—coaching Nadal from childhood until eventual retirement in 2017. On the surface, the hiring of former World No. 1 Carlos Moya to replace Uncle Toni, might seem to be yet another trendy superstar coach hire, but upon further review, it fits the typical Nadal pattern. The fellow Mallorcans have had a relationship that spans two decades—Moya serving as a mentor during Rafa’s youth. An overwhelming percentage of Nadal’s team are hometown hires—think of Nadal as tennis’ version of Vinny Chase.
10. Insane Fitness Level
While we’ve witnessed an injury hampered Nadal at the French, do you recall seeing a cramping Nadal, a fatigued Nadal, or even an out-of-breath Nadal?
If Nadal took the Dominic Thiem route and showcased his workouts on IG, we’d all collectively puke—right before we resume our search efforts for the next cute cat video.
Does Nadal’s humility—or his desire for privacy—prevent him from publishing his grueling workouts for the whole world to see on social media? It shall remain one of life’s many unsolved mysteries…
9. Groundstroke Height Over the Net
Rafa averages 90 inches of net clearance with his groundstrokes—and, yes gentlemen, height matters. By comparison, Nadal hits over two feet higher than his adversary Djokovic, who averages 63 inches. The RPMs he generates allows him to hit with such dramatic height while still keeping the ball inside the lines.
The higher trajectory helps him hit with depth and produces a higher bounce. It is with these high, arcing groundstrokes that Nadal pins his opponents back in a defensive position—both opening the court and giving him more time to attack.
Nadal’s forehand has been clocked as high as 5,000 RPMs, while on average he hits 3,200 RPMs. The tremendous amount of topspin he produces is as perfect a weapon for Phillipe Chatrier as a cross-bow is for the impending zombie apolcalypse.
Racquet geeks might belabor the importance of Nadal’s Babolat Aero Pro Drive, or his aptly named polyester strings—the 15 gauge Babolat RPM Blast—but without his explosive technique, all the fancy-schmancy equipment in the world would be as useful as a chocolate fire-guard.
On both the forehand and backhand, Rafa’s ridiculous acceleration originates from his powerful lower body, is stabilized by his rock-solid core, and then culminates with the crack of his long and loose whip-like arm(s). On the forehand, he drops the racquet head over two feet below the incoming ball—while most amateur players struggle to get two inches below the ball!
7. Performance Under Pressure
Pressure is arguably at its highest in tennis during tiebreaks and deciding sets. Nadal’s performance in both at the French is impeccable. With a match record at the French Open of 100-2, it might be super obvious that he’s won a high percentage of tiebreakers and deciding sets, but in these key moments, Nadal’s clutchness has been the difference between winning and losing.
6. The Lefty Slice Serve
Nadal is not known for dropping double digit aces, but his lefty advantage on the serve continually sets him up for success.
Both his slice serve out wide on the ad court and down-the-T on the deuce side target his right-handed opponents’ backhands. The deuce court serve funnels his opponents’ returns to the middle, while the the ad court serve pulls his opponents completely off the court.
In both situations, Nadal’s serve sets up his punishing forehand 79% of the time. On clay, Nadal executes what tennis tactician Craig O’Shannessy calls , “serve plus one,” better than anyone.
5. The Lefty Forehand
Nadal’s leftyness also enhances the effectiveness of his cross court forehand. Nadal’s forehand is so ferocious, it would undoubtedly still be a weapon if he were right-handed—but considering his massive lefty forehand bounces up high to his right-handed opponents backhands—it makes it damn near unstoppable on clay.
This is where the courts of Roland Garros provide their biggest assist to Nadal: the limestone base material is actually harder than the rubberized hard courts of Australia or New York, which causes the ball to bounce higher, while the friction created by the two millimeter layer of crushed brick slows the speed of the ball down.
High and slow is the perfect recipe for a crosscourt topspin forehand like Nadal’s. His opponents—whether one-handed or two-handed—struggle to find an edge against it.
4. Deep Return Position
At the French, Nadal stands so far back to receive, that the ball boys can practically reach out and get his autograph.
This deep return position works for him so well for several reasons: he’s got the speed and endurance to pull it off, the serve and volley play is more difficult to execute on red clay (as if anyone serves and volleys anymore anyways), and of course his ability to crank topspin on both sides helps.
Nadal’s positioning gives him more time to take a big, loopy cut at the ball—and somehow all the way from Row 17, he can still hit it hard enough to take the offensive. His deep return position coupled with the clay court bounce, also makes it tough to sneak an ace past the Spaniard.
While it’s a strategy that pays off for him on the clay, only three weeks later at Wimbledon, you’ll notice him standing much closer to the baseline.
3. Break Point Escape Artist
Nadal saves break points at a clip of 70% at the French. Not only does saving break points at this rate help Nadal for the obvious reasons, it also has what you might call a Sisyphus effect on his opponents—they get so close to the promised land, only to ultimately be denied.
2. Timing is Everything
Even though Rafa started competing professionally in 2001, he didn’t play the French Open until 2005, where he won it on his first attempt. Whether this was due to injury, dumb luck, or another Uncle Toni’s genius coaching—not playing the tournament until he was primed to win it has certainly allowed Nadal to develop a mystique at Roland Garros.
It might seem counterintuitive to list self-doubt as a positive attribute for a tennis champion, but self-doubt is in fact Nadal’s greatest superpower.
In his recent 60 minutes interview, Rafa revealed that his self-doubt is what keeps him alert and humble. He believes someone who thinks they can’t fail ultimately becomes arrogant and complacent—and it’s unlikely that an arrogant and complacent champion would have amassed 13 French Open titles.
Something tells me by this time next year, I better have a 14th reason up my sleeve…