Springtime is clay court season in men’s tennis with four key clay court tournaments and a host of smaller events taking place throughout the months of April and May.
After March visits to big prize contests in Indian Wells and Miami, top ATP players cross the Atlantic to compete at Masters 1000 level tournaments in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, before heading on to the French Open at Roland Garros, the event that marks the pinnacle of the clay court season.
Europe is the domain of the clay court season, and for the last seven years, Rafael Nadal has been its undisputed king.
Tally championships since 2005 at the four main clay court events, and you will find that Nadal has taken home the trophy 20 of 28 times. Reduce your scope to just the last three years, and things looks much the same with Nadal owning 8 of 12 titles. Not surprisingly, the handful of trophies Nadal hasn’t hoisted at red clay masters-level and major events since 2009 belong to Novak Djokovic (2) and Roger Federer (2).
It’s only when you narrow your view to look through the lens of the last twelve months that you see Nadal’s prowess on clay begin to be challenged.
In 2011, Novak Djokovic, who had never beaten Nadal in a final on any surface, turned the tables on the Spaniard, beating him in six finals, including on the clay courts of both Madrid and Rome. Nadal, wounded after those losses, among others at the hands of Djokovic, rebounded by the French Open, capturing his sixth title at Roland Garros in the last seven years. He won two other tournaments in 2011 as well (Monte Carlo and Barcelona – both on clay), and he finished the year ranked in the top two for the seventh straight year. A banner year by most standards, but with one major and only one masters-level championship, a disappointing year for Nadal.
Nadal will remain among tennis’ uber-elite for the foreseeable future, but as we head into Spring, his noticeable dip in 2011, coupled with the absence of any titles thus far in 2012, plant additional seeds of doubt about his ability to regain a firm grip on his clay court crown. Certainly, Djokovic and a seemingly reinvigorated Federer will continue to present challenges to Nadal on clay, and if there is another major threat looming, it likely resides on the racket of David Ferrer. Ferrer, a fellow Spaniard and friend to Nadal, has already claimed three titles this year, two of which were on clay courts at ATP 250 tournaments held during the South American “Golden Swing” of the tour.
Despite the high level of tennis and the intense competition that he faces, Nadal’s red dirt dominance in the last decade ensures his position as a favorite to win at least two of the four important clay court tournaments this Spring. Nadal has won the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters, which is typically the first of the big clay court contests, for seven consecutive years (George W. Bush was just wrapping up his first term as President the last time someone else won this tournament). Additionally, Nadal has won every match he has played at the French Open since 2005, with the exception of the Soderling semi-final blip in 2009 that ultimately allowed Federer to get his only title at Roland Garros.
Can Nadal dominate the red clay in 2012? Yes. Will he? Maybe.
Nadal is arguably the best competitor in the history of the sport, demonstrating a Connors-level commitment to each point, regardless of the score, and he still covers the court like an amped up jack-rabbit. On clay and every other surface, he still regularly delivers punishing groundstrokes that are often punctuated with jaw-dropping shot-making ability.
What likely stands between Rafa and continued clay court domination is confidence – the complete trust in his own ability that may have been shaken by events of the last year. At the highest level of men’s tennis, in the kingdom of the top five, confidence is everything. For Rafa this Spring, as it has been with Federer in the last decade and Djokovic in the last year, success likely comes down to belief.