Rafa Nadal’s fortress on Clay; Breached by very few


An asteroid has been named after him. Shakira put him in her music video for being an extraordinary world champion as a teenager. Reportedly, he is 10% owner of football giant Real Madrid, but he modestly calls himself a simple football lover.

Well, modesty, humility, and simplicity are definitely his middle names. We are talking about an extraordinary tennis champion, the one and only Rafa Nadal.

When Rafa won his 11th Barcelona tournament with an easy 6-1 6-1 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the 2019 edition of the tournament it was his 400th win on clay-courts. Rafa on clay courts has lost just 40 matches in his incomparable career and has so far won as many as 445 matches on clay-courts. To put things in perspective, clay-court great Thomas Muster has 422 wins while the incomparable Roger Federer has just 223 and the indefatigable Novak Djokovic has 225. The only players to have more wins than Rafa are Guillermo Vilas (681) and Manuel Orantes (555).

Rafa’s winning percentage on clay is an unreal 91.8%. The legendary Bjorn Borg, who won 285 of his 331 matches on clay-courts is next with 86.1%. Vilas and Orantes have won more matches but let us see their winning percentage. Vilas is at 79.7% and Manuel Orantes is at 77.%. His two great peers, Federer and Novak are at 76.1% and 80.1%. At 91.8%, Rafa is the clear Numero Uno.

Rafa has won 86 titles out of which 60 titles are on clay-courts. He is the only player to win 50 plus clay-court titles. Vilas is next with 49. Rafa’s record in clay-court finals is an incredible 60-8. Amongst Rafa’s greatest clay-court achievements are winning 13 French Opens, 11 Monte Carlo Masters 1000’s, 9 Rome Masters, 5 Madrid Masters, and 11 Barcelona Opens. Forget about defeating him in a French Open final, no one has stretched him to five sets at the French Open. He has won four French Opens without losing a single set, a feat which the great Bjorn Borg has done thrice. As compared to Rafa’s 60 titles , Federer and Novak have 11 and 15 titles respectively on clay-courts.

Rafa broke Andre Agassi’s record for maximum wins by a teenager by winning 24 singles matches. He won the French Open in his 1st attempt emulating Mats Wilander.  In 2006, he was the 1st person to beat Federer in a Grand Slam final. Rafa has an unreal 81 matches win in a row on clay-courts, a feat which may stand the test of time.

Indeed, Rafa’s clay-court achievements are awesome. However, he is definitely not an “only clay-court player”. He has won US Open as many as four times which even the great Novak Djokovic who is rated a better hard court player has won thrice. Rafa has also won Wimbledon twice and the Australian Open once. He has held simultaneous Grand Slams on clay, grass court, and hard courts on two occasions. He has 10 Masters-1000 trophies on hard courts. Rafa’s overall record is also amazing with 999 wins to 201 losses, which means a win of 83.3.%. As regards the overall win percentage, the next three are Novak (83.1%), Borg (82.7%) and Federer (82.1%).

On clay, Rafa seems invincible. All similar adjectives like indomitable, invulnerable, unbeatable, unstoppable, unshakeable, and unconquerable can be attributed to him. His supremacy is unparalleled and matchless. Rafa not just wins but punishes and pulverizes his opponents into subjugation with a brutally dominating display of stunning tennis.

Rafa, as mentioned before has just 40 losses on clay. Who are these select few to have done the unthinkable?

Let’s have a look.

Novak Djokovic

Heading the list is Novak, who has 7 wins. Overall Novak and Rafa have met 56 times with Novak enjoying a 29-27 head-to-head advantage. On clay, they have met 25 times with 18 wins for Rafa, including 7 out of 8 French Open encounters. Novak is the only player to defeat him in the finals of all the three clay-court ATP Masters. Certainly, he is Rafa’s greatest clay-court opponent.

Interestingly, the only other player who has a positive head-to-head against Rafa ( 6-5) is Nikolay Davydenko. However, all his 6 wins against Rafa were on hard courts, and Rafa won all their four matches on clay-courts and their only grass-court match.

Dominic Thiem

Thiem has defeated Rafa once each in the last 4 years, 2016-2019. Interestingly all 4 wins were at different venues. Thiem won in Buenos Aries, Rome, Madrid, and Barcelona. The 1st win was over 3 sets and the other 3 were in straight sets

Overall the two champions have met 14 times, with Rafa winning 9 times. Apart from Thiem’s 4 clay court wins, he won the 2020 Australian Open QF in a thrilling match. At the French Open, Rafa has won all their 4 matches, twice in the finals, once in the SF, and once in an earlier round. In these 4 matches, Rafa dropped just one set. In overall finals too, Rafa has won all their 4 matches, with the other two being the Madrid Masters and Barcelona.

Roger Federer

Federer and Rafa have played 40 matches with the Spaniard winning 24 and Federer just 16. But if one looks at their clay-court rivalry it is even more embarrassingly one-sided with Rafa winning 14 out of 16 matches.

Federer himself accepts that multiple crushing clay court losses earlier in his career had a lasting effect on how their rivalry turned out. He goes on to say that possibly his 2008 Wimbledon loss to Rafa was due to being crushed 6-1, 6-3 6-0 by Rafa at the French Open This was his 1st Bagel since 1999. Of Federer’s 2 clay court wins, one at the 2007 Hamburg Masters is pertinent as it snapped Rafa’s 81 matches winning streak on clay. Rafa’s other Finals loss to Federer was at the 2009 Madrid Open final. Rafa has won all their matches at French Open, and Federer has lost as many as 5 finals to Rafa here and overall 6 matches at Roland Garros. Due credit to Federer of course for seizing the only option he had of winning the French Open in 2009 when Rafa was surprisingly out early. Overall, out of Federer’s 15 losses in clay-court finals, 11 are to Rafa.

Robin Soderling

Robin’s name is on the list as he is the 1st of only 2 players to defeat Rafa at the French Open, with Novak being the 2nd. Robin shocked Rafa in the 4th round of the 2009 French Open when Rafa developed an injury. Robin went on to reach the final, where he lost to Federer. In 2010 he defeated Federer in the Quarters and went on to reach the finals where he lost to Rafa. He quit the game prematurely at 26 due to mononucleosis, otherwise would possibly have met Rafa a few more times.

Robin Soderling was the only player who could ever make Rafa lose his cool on the court. One incident stands out when Robin went out of the court and started imitating Rafa’s adjusting his shorts while Rafa was about to serve.

Andy Murray

Surprisingly, Murray has 2 wins over Rafa at the Masters 1000 tournaments, both at Madrid Masters in 2015 and 2016. Overall these 2 great champions have met each other 24 times, with Rafa winning 17 of them.

Interestingly, they have met thrice on grass, at Wimbledon and Rafa won all three times. This too showcases Rafa’s prowess on non-clay courts.

Gaston Gaudio

2004 French Open Champion Gaudio is the only player to have a matching head to head record with Rafa on clay-courts. Overall they have 3 wins each. Gaudio won their 1st 3 matches and Rafa their next 3. Gaudio is also the only player to have bagelled Rafa on clay in a 0-6, 6-0, 6-1 win at Buenos Aires. Rafa subsequently bagelled him again at Monte Carlo.

Fabio Fognini

Fognini’s name figures in this select list for a specific reason. He is the only player apart from Djokovic who has more than one wins over Rafa on clay in one season. This was in 2015 at Barcelona and Rio. Overall they have met 16 times with Rafa winning 12 of the matches. A loss which hurt Rafa hugely will be at the 2015 US Open ( hard courts) which Rafa lost after winning the 1st two sets, the only time Rafa has ever lost after winning the 1st two sets. Fognini’s third win over Rafa was at the 2019 Monte Carlo semi-finals.

Gaudio, Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Thiem, and Fognini are the only 6 players who have more than one win over Rafa on clay-courts.  Further, Gaudio, Thiem, Novak, and Fognini are the only 4 players to have won 3 ( or more) times against Raga on clay.

Other players who have had a solitary win versus Rafa are Stan Wawrinka, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Nicholas Alemagro and Pablo Cuevas.  Latest to join the list of select few is Diego Schwartzmann with his shock win at the 2020 Rome Masters. He had lost his previous 9 matches versus Rafa. They met again at the FO Semi-finals and Rafa won in straight sets.

To showcase Rafa’s supremacy on the surface, I would like to specifically mention David Ferrer, who though a super player won just 1 match on clay-courts versus Rafa out of 19 though his overall record is 6-24.

Rafa by winning his 13th French Open and that too with an unprecedented demolition over the world number 1 in a straight sets defeat has shown that he is at the peak of his game. The clay-court season is over and now the incomparable champion will be looking forward to the Australian Open 2021 which he would love to win so that he would be the 1st amongst the great trio to win each of the four Grand Slams at least twice.

Vamos Rafa. Indeed, your fortress is becoming more and more solid and indestructible.

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