For some odd reason, a lot of people seemed to believe that in order for Rafael Nadal to be considered the best clay court player of all time he’d need to break Bjorn Borg’s record six French Open titles. I believe Nadal was already the best once he won his fourth. Not only did Nadal add that seventh clay major this past year, but he once again dominated on the red clay, collecting the Masters titles in Monte Carlo and Rome, winning the French Open, and even collecting a seventh title in Barcelona. His only loss came on the blue clay of Madrid to compatriot Fernando Verdasco (a match that Verdasco made nearly impossible to tank).
It looked like 2012 was following a pretty identical script to 2006-2008 in that Novak Djokovic, like Roger Federer before him, won the big hard court titles and managed to face Nadal in every clay court final possible. And unlike in 2011 where Djokovic scored two straight wins in Madrid and Rome, Nadal finally got his revenge, and snapped his seven match losing streak, turning away Novak three straight times.
Nadal has won Monte Carlo a record eight straight times, absolutely destroying Djokovic this time around. Sure you can say Djokovic was distracted by his grandfather’s death, but a lot of blame shouldn’t be put on that. Djokovic still battled through to make it to the final, including a rally against Tomas Berdych in the semifinals. And yet he couldn’t even hold serve in the second set against Nadal. It was clear he didn’t have the mental reserves this time around, but you have to give most of the credit to Nadal for righting the ship, especially after the gut-wrenching loss in Australia.
Barcelona was another formality for Nadal, although he was firmly challenged by the pesky David Ferrer. Ferrer was actually amazingly close to stealing the win in that final (as close as someone can get without winning a set, anyway) but could not hold it together mentally. Maybe someone could argue that Ferrer was actually Nadal’s toughest opponent on clay this year. He never dropped a set to his compatriot but Ferrer played a serious game that forced Nadal to dig deeper than he had against anyone else until probably the fourth set of the French Open final.
The most interesting part of this year’s clay season was the Masters event in Madrid. I can’t really say the blue clay was ready to be played on, but it was certainly there to be tried out. Andy Murray, not exactly a clay court stalwart, skipped the event entirely. I found this pretty odd since, seriously, it’s not like he was going to win the French no matter what kind of preparation he got. Nadal and Djokovic were absolutely blue in the face about the surface and tanked in the Round of 16 and Quarterfinals, respectively. This probably would’ve gone down to be a bigger statement had Federer not gone on to take the title.
And I’d like to take a moment to give Federer, and his opponent in the final, Berdych, some serious credit. We all know how amazing Nadal is on clay, and Djokovic isn’t a scrub on the surface either. But both players whined like crazy about this surface. As a fan, I loved it. It was something so amazingly different that really hit the nail on the head for me. And I thought it was disappointing that the top two players acted like such babies about it. Federer and Berdych, while I’m sure had their problems with it, put it aside and played some great tennis. The final was maybe one of the best matches of the year (it’s highly underrated). And this was on, apparently, a completely new surface that no other player had ever even seen before. It’s a shame that we won’t see more blue next year.
Back on the original red clay in Rome, Nadal and Djokovic once again faced off. This time, it looked like Djokovic was back to 2011 form but a bad call late in the first set all but sealed Nadal’s victory. And so we were off to the second major of the year, and there was so much mouth-watering history on the line that made it maybe the most intriguing major since Wimbledon in 2008.
Unfortunately, the quality of tennis wasn’t nearly as high. While Nadal played some of the best tennis of his career, it looked like Djokovic and Federer were trying to outdo each other in who can make it to the semis while playing their absolute worst. Both guys barely got through pretty easy draws with both of them being pushed to five sets in the quarterfinals. (I’d like to extend some love to Andres Seppi, who I met a few years ago. It’s nice to see him having a good year and giving Djokovic such a scare in a major). While the 2011 French Open semifinal between Djokovic and Federer was a match for the ages, their 2012 encounter was the opposite. Sloppy play on both sides and a disheartening double break lead blown by Federer saw Djokovic ease into the final after three subpar sets. On the other side, Nadal showed everyone who is boss by demolishing Ferrer, who was playing in his overdue first French semi.
As much as I’d like to see Federer add at least one more French Open (and maybe beat Nadal in the process) to his stellar resume, this was the final everyone wanted to see. The mouth-watering was at an all time high. Would Nadal be able to overcome his nemesis and win a record seventh French Open? Or would Djokovic be the first since Rod Laver to hold all four majors at once? Nadal got himself a two set and a break lead rather easily as Djokovic looked like he was battling inner demons more than Nadal. But then things got interesting as Djokovic reeled off seven straight games! Seven straight games, in the biggest clay court final there is, against the greatest clay court player of all time. Djokovic would go on to lose in the fourth set the following day due to a rain delay, but after that performance you’d have to think he knows he has what it takes to usurp Nadal from the ridiculously high perch he sits on at the French Open.
All in all, it was the same story, different year with regards to the clay court season. Enough can’t be said about how good Nadal is on clay. But who would have thought that after such a successful first half of the year, Nadal would only play four more matches.
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