Rafael Nadal is 103-1 on clay over his past 104 matches heading into TMS Rome. Anyone boasting a 99.03 winning percentage on a given surface has to be taken more than seriously as a favorite. Nadal is in Edwin Moses range, the track star who won the every 400 Meter Hurdles event he entered between 1977 and 1987. If the grass court season were not so short, Roger Federer, who does own 54 consecutive wins on grass, would also be in that type of spot. Come on Roger play Newport, RI after Wimbledon! The fact is that Nadal holds 4 consecutive Monte Carlo titles, 3 consecutive Rome titles, and 3 consecutive French Open titles. Who is going to bet against him winning his 4th title in Rome and Paris in 2008? Still, sports are about competition, and it is important to figure out who the usual and unusual suspects for dethroning Rafa might be.
The Other Top Players: Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic
These two have proven to be good on all surfaces. Both have posted a few convincing wins over Nadal in big events.
Best Case Scenario: Nadal enters a match slightly leg weary due to having faced a player akin to David Ferrer or a game Nikolay Davydenko in a previous round. The court plays reasonably fast for clay and either man has a day where they are aggressive but make few errors.
Could it Happen?: In one sense yes because Roger did beat a worn down Nadal in the final of Hamburg 2007. Federer also had many chances vs. Nadal in the 2008 Monte Carlo final. Djokovic is solid enough on both wings to have a day where he plays at his top level and is tough off the ground for Nadal even on clay. The problem each man faces at the French Open is that actual court in Paris is so big. Nadal has plenty of room to run down great shots, and we all know he is strong enough to hit great shots back from what are normally losing positions on a court. Add to that the 3 out of 5 set format in a Grand Slam match and the chances become slim for maintaining a high level of excellence while attacking a player who defends as well as anyone. Throw in the fact that Nadal can attack and beat a player up with his ground strokes and the odds of a 3 out of 5 set win for either Federer or Djokovic over Nadal seem slim.
6’6” Sam Querrey, 6’7” Chris Guccione, 6’9” John Isner, and 6’10” Ivo Karlovic all could throw a change up against Nadal by simply changing the geometry of the match while also winning easy points on serve.
Best Case Scenario: Karlovic is the only one of the 4 with any real clay court experience even if Querrey is making strides. Dr. Ivo would need a dry day in which the court plays exceedingly fast to have a chance at serving big and frustrating Nadal.
Could it Happen?: In a 2 out of 3 set match, this might be somewhere on the edge of the galaxy of possibilities, but in Paris this could never happen. It would be a fun match to watch, but none of the ATP’s big men have much of a chance vs. Nadal on clay.
The Spanish and Argentine Armadas
There is no shortage of clay court animals hailing from Spain or Argentina. A cursory look at the top 100 reveals that 10 of the top 100 are from Argentina and that including Nadal Spain boasts 13 players in the top 100. Most of these players have games suited to slow courts and could all pull an upset of anyone not named Nadal on the dirt. The problem they have with Nadal is he does what they do better, he is stronger, he is mentally tougher and he is a lefty. All of that adds up to a competitive advantage for Nadal. (I will leave David Nalbandian, Nicholas Almagro and Juan Martin del Porto for other sections)
Best Case Scenario: A player such as David Ferrer or Juan Monaco gets a shot at Nadal on a day when Rafa is feeling low. Maybe he had a tough match, maybe he is a little sick, maybe he got dumped … but a day where Nadal is not at his steely best. On that day, Ferrer especially could come through.
Could it Happen?: In a 2 out of 3 set match I think it could happen. The odds would not be great, but Ferrer did just take a set off of Nadal. If a player can win one set, winning a second is not impossible even if more difficult. Winning 3 sets against Nadal seems highly unlikely though. On a bad day for Nadal, he can normally play and hit his way through the funk over a single set. He was exceedingly nervous at the 2005 and 2006 French Open finals, but won each match in 4 sets.
The Punchers: Nicholas Almagro and Fernando Gonzalez
Gonzo and Almagro have something Ferrer lacks – heft on their ground strokes. On a hard court or indoor court I think Ferrer has a better chance vs. Nadal than either of these two. However, on clay I think a player has to at least make Nadal uncomfortable and find a way to pin him into bad court positioning. Even if one does this Nadal normally finds the goods, but Almagro and Gonzalez do have enough power to have a punchers chance vs. Nadal
Best Case Scenario: Play in the Zone – that is not much of a game plan, but it is the best I can think of for anyone trying to out hit Nadal on clay.
Could it Happen?: Unlikely in a 3 set match and not at all likely in a 5 set match.
The Enigmas: Marat Safin and David Nalbandian
Nalbandian might be the Karol Kucera to Nadal’s Agassi or the Brad Gilbert to Nadal’s Becker. Every player has someone they do not match up well with and do not enjoy playing. David Nalbandian might be that player for Nadal. The problem is he never plays well enough for a long period of time to test that theory. The two have never met on clay.
Marat Safin could execute a similar game plan as Djokovic and try to hit big serves, nasty returns and heavy ground strokes vs. Nadal.
Best Case Scenarios: For Safin it would be getting Nadal in the 1st or 2nd round and playing out of his mind. He is insane enough to believe, but in Canada last year on a hard court Safin dominated Nadal for one set and still lost the set before folding. For Nalbandian, he needs to win his key matches and get some confidence. If he does that he could pose some problems to Nadal due to his odd style of play.
Could it Happen?: The Safin scenario might have made sense 2 years ago, but too much time may have siphoned off enough genius that only a madman remains. Nadal beats Safin on clay. Nalbandian is an X factor in that his two comprehensive wins over Nadal came on an indoor court. The match up on paper is as favorable as anyone has vs. Nadal, but mentally it is hard to bet on Nalbandian. It is even harder to bet against Nadal’s tenacity. Odds are he would find a way to beat Nalbandian on clay even if he is thrown by Nalbandian’s returns and ability to change the pace and direction of the ball.
The Young Guns
A young player who has spent his final years as a junior or satellite player watching Nadal comes into his own physically and tries to take the gauntlet from Nadal. The advantage such a player has is that Nadal is the only standard for clay court excellence that they have known and therefore such a player has had a goal in practicing and developing his craft. Juan Martin del Porto is 19 and is 6’5”. He looks like a very good player in the making. Undoubtedly, Spain, Argentina, as well as the rest of Europe and South America are developing young players who like clay. Juan Martin is not our only candidate even if naming these younger clay court specialists is hard to do.
Best Case Scenario: Juan Martin del Porto seems feisty enough to challenge anyone (ask Murray’s mom). At 19, he may not know to be afraid. 2 of his 3 losses to Nadal have been respectable. Basically, a young player with clay court skills needs to come along and challenge Nadal in a way that few have tried – physically. Young players do not tire as easily and can pull surprises. If a guy who plays like Nadal did in 2005 faces Nadal in 2008, my money would be on Rafa 08, but youth eventually comes through in tennis. I am not implying that Nadal is old either, but he does have some miles and injuries that have accumulated.
Can it Happen?: In 2004 we knew who Nadal was, and by 2005 he was the form horse entering the French Open even if he was the #3 seed. At this point such a young player is not on the horizon so I would not bet on anyone supplanting Nadal in 2008.
Final Analysis: Federer and Djokovic likely have the best short term odds of beating Nadal in a big match on clay. Ferrer and Davydenko are the 3rd and 4th most likely to pull the upset. However, the youth movement in tennis is never ending and this unknown faction is the group that will eventually dethrone Nadal on clay. I would not hold my breath on it happening anytime soon though.
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