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Will the 'King of Clay' continue his reign in the 2021 clay court season?

The strong relationship between Rafael Nadal and clay court goes back a long way. In this article we take a look at the key reasons why Nadal is so dominant on clay, his clay court record, statistics, titles, and opponents.

The Spaniard emerged as a serious contender when he clinched the French Open title in 2005 defeating Argentinian Mariano Puerta in four sets to win his first grand slam. 

What started then as comfort on the surface has turned into big domination now with his opponents left far behind. 

Rafael Nadal has won a staggering 13 French Open titles in his career and has been nicknamed as the undisputed "King of Clay". 

No one has come close to even outperforming him except for two occasions in Roland Garros, Robin Soderling in the fourth round in four sets in 2009 and Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals in straight sets in 2015. 

Nadal 13 French Open titles
Only time will answer if Nadal continues his juggernaut on clay in 2021. Image Credits - Australian Open - Twitter

Rafael Nadal Stats on Clay Court

Rafael Nadal stats on clay court

Key reasons behind Rafa's invincible record in Roland Garros

  • Topspin heavy forehand supported by the high bounce and less skiddiness in humid conditions. 
  • Strong returning by utilizing all the space available on the big court behind the baseline. 
  • Serving out wide on the ad side to the backhand corner of right-handed players and smashing the powerful down-the-line forehand to finish off points quickly.
  • Serving down the T to right-handers to return the shot with a clever backhand pass. 
  • Lightning-fast footspeed that assists his incredible groundstrokes from every nook and corner of the court.
  • Intelligent point construction especially while playing long rallies. He can play drop shots, cross-court forehands, slices, and even pull of tweeners with ease. 

Who are the biggest threats to Nadal's chances in the 2021 clay season?

Nadal vs Djokovic

The World number 1 has every weapon in his game to beat Nadal. Djokovic has beaten the 20-time grand slam champion 7 times on clay court including two times in Monte Carlo (Finals in 2013 and Semifinals in 2015). 

Djokovic last defeated Rafael Nadal on clay in the quarterfinals of the Rome Masters in 2016 in straight sets. While the Serbian will still be haunted by the one-sided defeat in the French Open finals in 2020, he would still be backing himself having taken a good 1 and a half month break. 

Placed on the opposite sides of the draw in Monte Carlo, the two legends have a great chance of meeting each other. Nadal has the slight edge having won four matches on clay in a row against Novak. 

Djokovic vs Nadal
Djokovic will have to play an attacking game right from the start with minimum unforced errors to defeat Nadal, the greatest clay-court player of all time. Image Credits - Tennis365

Thiem vs Nadal

Known as the "Prince of Clay" after back-to-back losses to Nadal in the French Open finals in 2018 and 2019, Thiem has decided not to take part in the Monte Carlo Open as he has not attained 100% match fitness after a foot problem. 

The Austrian will play the ATP-250 Belgrade Open followed by the Mutua Madrid Open. Thiem has 4 wins against Nadal on clay. 

Thiem vs Nadal
Thiem's one-handed backhand has to be ruthless if he wants to defeat the King of Clay on his favourite surface.                                             Image Credits - Tennis Warehouse

Nadal vs Schwartzman

Known as the Pocket Rocket on the ATP Tour, Schwartzman outplayed Nadal 6-2 7-5 in the quarterfinals of the Rome Masters in 2020. 

It was the first win for the Argentinian against the Spaniard. However, Nadal earned his revenge 19 days later overpowering him in straight sets in the semifinals of the French Open last year. 

Schwartzman can trouble Nadal with his aggressive returning from the baseline and well-timed passing shots. Rafa can commit a lot of unforced errors in heavy conditions as he plays defensive from the baseline. 

Nadal vs Schwatzman
Nadal cannot afford to let his guard down against the dangerous and unpredictable Diego Schwartzman. Image Credits - First Sportz

Fognini vs Nadal

The World number 18 would aim to defend his Monte Carlo title that he won in 2019. The Italian has won three times on clay against Rafa. 

Fognini also played doubles with Diego Schwartzman in Monte Carlo and the pair won their first match against Oliver Marach/Luke Saville in straight sets to reach the pre-quarterfinals. Fognini has performed best on clay (won 58% of his matches) when compared to other surfaces like grass and hard. 

Fognini vs Nadal
Nadal would be wary of Fognini's mercurial down-the-line forehand should the two meet in the Monte Carlo Open. Image Credits - Reuters

Nadal vs Tsitsipas

Nadal leads the head-to-head record 2-1 on clay against Tsitsipas. The Greek notched up his only win on the red dirt against Rafa in the semifinals of the Madrid Open in three sets. 

Tsitsipas would be pumped up with his come-from-behind victory in the quarterfinals of the 2021 Australian Open. 

With a great win-loss record of 18-5 this season, the World number 5 would fancy his chances. Tsitsipas would have got a feel of the conditions in Monte Carlo after playing doubles with his brother Petros Tsitsipas. 

Nadal vs Tsitsipas
Nadal will have to depend on his solid defense to overcome the all-round game of Tsitsipas. Image Credits - Tennis Picks.Net

Final Thoughts

A lot of records are on the line for Rafael Nadal as he aims to continue his glory on the beloved clay surface. 

Having committed to playing four tournaments (Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome), he would look to keep his back and knee in perfect shape ahead of defending his title at the French Open this year. 

The above-mentioned players have all the elements in their game to challenge Nadal and force a defeat against all odds.

Featured Image Credits - Getty Images

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