Rafa Nadal on Clay the numbers



Concrete Elbow
by Steve Tignor
04/25/2011 - 1:03 PM

What are the great sustained performances in Open era history? There’s Evert’s 125 straight wins on clay and 48 of 49 Grand Slam semis. There’s Sampras’s six straight years at No.1. There’s Federer’s 23 straight Slam semis, as well as his five Wimbledons and five U.S. Opens in six years. There’s Navratilova’s outrageous record from 1982 to 1989, as well as her 1442 career singles wins. There are others; I’m sure Steffi Graf did something ridiculous along the way.

In 2006-07, Rafael Nadal gave us one of his own when he won 81 consecutive matches on clay, the most ever on one surface for a man. But as the years go on, it has become clear that he’s slowly been building another, one that will hold a unique place in men’s tennis—his dominance of the clay-court swing from 2005 on. Since ’05, Nadal is 184-6 on dirt; even his closest historical clay rival, Bjorn Borg, can’t match that kind of percentage. The Angelic Assassin, long considered, and maybe still considered, the best clay-courter ever, was 245-39 on the surface for his career.

I’m not going to try to say what the “greatest” of these sustained performances is. That would mean having to call the others “not as great.” But Nadal’s is special. It isn't a matter of winning one tournament over and over; it's a matter of winning a surface, winning a swing, winning not just a major but its tune-ups, three of which happen to be prestigious events themselves. For more than half a decade, Nadal hasn't failed in this quest. True, he lost once at Roland Garros, in 2009, but that year he also won in Monte Carlo and Rome and reached the final in Madrid, an arduous task in itself and a set of results that virtually any other player would have been happy with. Yes, he has lost other matches along the way—to Federer in Hamburg one year and Madrid another, to Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome, to . . . well, that's about it.

Somehow the extent of Nadal's dominance has begun to work against him. By now, for many fans he’s just a guy doing his job, using his ridiculous excellence on this particular surface to his unfair advantage—hardly a newsworthy event, or even one worth watching. No wonder Rafa looked a little sluggish at times last week in winning his seventh straight title in Monte Carlo. There has to be slight decline in motivation at some point, doesn’t there?

That’s the thing, though; there doesn’t seem to be any. Jimmy Connors is a Nadal fan, and you can see why; with both of them, their desire to win was as intergral to their personality as the sound of their voice or the color of their hair of the spin on their lefty serves. One of the hardest things for most players in this individual sport, and one that is rarely mentioned, is to get yourself to that place, mentally, where you can compete with all you have. It’s not automatic for most of us, but Nadal, like Connors, appears to reside in that place. More than most pros, I have trouble imagining Rafa doing anything but playing tennis.

Seven titles in Monte Carlo, six now in Barcelona, five in Rome, five in Paris, one in Hamburg, one in Madrid: If he lost in the tune-ups and then waltzed in and cleaned up at the French Open anyway, that would prove his superiority on clay. But Nadal doesn't waltz anywhere. He flies from the trophy ceremony in Monte Carlo to get back on the dirt and start it all over again in Barcelona a couple of days later. And while many fans and observers, including myself, wondered if he were making a mistake in adding this tournament back to his schedule, it seems, for now, to have worked out. Nadal played better tennis this week than he did last. He flattened out his backhand and found the corners with his heavy, rolling forehand. He hit winners on defense and on the run, and he didn’t drop a set. Is this boring? Personally, I enjoyed seeing the particular arc that Nadal found on his forehand; the ball, as it comes off his strings, flies across the net, and dive bombs inside a line, has a life of its own. The trajectory, with its big dip in the middle, is distinctive.

“Stay humble, stay hungry,” is the way Mary Carillo characterized Uncle Toni’s lifelong advice to Nadal. It’s the latter command that Nadal follows most closely at this time of year. Win after win and title after title only testifies to that hunger. There’s a good chance Nadal will lose a match during this clay season; as dominant as he’s been, he’s only run the table of clay Masters once, in 2010. And whether he lets on or not, he has to feel extra pressure when he’s on clay; anytime he loses on it, it’s an earth-shaking moment, the tennis equivalent of a presidential assassination. Like everything else, though, that only adds to his desire not to let it happen.

One reason we watch sports is to see that somebody cares. But there's another reason not to ignore Rafael Nadal’s long-running clay-season excellence: You won’t see anything like it again. Looking at it in the long view, every one of his titles at this time of year is a stunner.

Added Achievements with the Barcelona Win:

  •  Nadal has tied Borg for 1st in the overall career winning percentage record: 82.7%. No one had been able to do that in over 30 years (in reality he is still a miniscule 0.005% behind Borg, but is likely to surpass him soon).
  • Nadal has now won his 45th career title. Nadal ties Edberg in 11th place in the all time list. Becker is next ahead in the list with 50.
  • Nadal establishes a record 6 wins in Barcelona and is the only player in history to have won 2 tournaments 6 or more times. (He is likely to win Rome and Roland Garros in the future making him the only player in history to win 4 tournaments 6 or more times).
  • Nadal has won his 11th 500 Series title and is in 2nd place in the all time list, only one tile behind Sampras won leads with 12 titles.
  • Nadal is, by far, the best clay court player in history (yes, better than Borg, now) with and incredible 93% winning percentage. Since 2005, Nadal has only lost 6 matches, and he is 187-6 (not 184-6), which is equal to a 97% winning percentage. Nadal has won and outstanding 31 of 48 clay tournaments he has ever played for a 65% winning percentage.
  • Nadal has passed Borg with 31 career clay court titles for 3rd place in the all time list. Next ahead in the list is Muster with 40. Nonetheless, Muster’s wins are of a much lesser quality, as 26 of his titles are 250 Series level. Contrast that with Nadal who has only five 250 Series and 40 of a higher level.
  • Nadal is also the best outdoor player in history with an 85.3% winning percentage.
  • With his 44rd outdoor tournament win, Nadal has also surpassed Muster for 5th place in the all time outdoor win list. Next up is Agassi with 48 wins.
  • Nadal has the all time best winning percentage at 400 wins (400-91 for an 81.5%) and 500 wins (500-105 for an 82.6%). If he can manage to make it to 600 without losing 20 matches (very likely), he will also surpass Borg and have the all time best winning percentage at 600 wins.
Rafa on clay - the incredible numbers
What's more to be said about Rafael Nadal on clay? Well nothing really, the stats speak for themselves, so rather than bleat on about another dominant week on the dirt from the world number one in Barcelona, lets instead look at the some of the key numbers behind his simply astonishing form on the surface.

34 - The number of matches on clay that Nadal has now won in a row; he has also had runs of 81 (April 05-May 07 - a record) and 33 (May 08-May 09) in the past. He is the only player in the Open era to have won at least 30 consecutive matches on clay three times.

186 - The number of matches Nadal has won on clay since 2005.

6 - The number of clay court matches Nadal has lost in that same period.

31 - The number of clay court finals he has won in his career.

2 - The number of clay court finals he has lost in his career.

2 - The number of players that have beaten Nadal more than once on clay (Roger Federer twice and Gaston Gaudio three times). Nadal holds a 10-2 record against the Swiss master on the surface, while all his losses to Gaudio came before 2005.

9 - The number of times Nadal has faced world number two Novak Djokovic on clay.

0 - The number of those matches Nadal has lost.

67 - The number of matches on clay in the month of April that Nadal has won in a row. His last defeat in April came in 2005 when he lost to Igor Andreev in Valencia.

1 - The number of matches he has lost at Roland Garros.

6 x 2 - Nadal is the only player in history who has won two different titles on six consecutive occasions (Barcelona, Monte Carlo). The latter of those titles he has actually won seven years in a row

24 - Perhaps the scariest statistic of all - Nadal's age - there is the potential for plenty more clay court titles to come.

The question Tramlines wants to put to you dear readers is this: Can we already declare Nadal the best clay court player ever?

He still has a few records to beat. He is only third on the clay court titles overall list (Thomas Muster had 40 and Guillermo Villas had 45), while Bjorn Borg has won one more French Open title than the Spaniard (six to five).

But forget emotions, forget personal preferences, can anybody realistically argue that Nadal, on top form, would be beaten by any man in history on clay?

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