Apr 16, 2019
Apr 16, 2019

Mats Wilander's clay court season preview


What you need to know about the clay surface

Why is Nadal so good on clay?

Mats Wilander's clay court season preview

We’re now reaching the end of the first major clay court tournament of the 2019 tennis, the Monte-Carlo Masters. Anyone trying to predict performance over the next month or so needs to have an understanding of what makes clay so unique. Read this article to learn more about the clay surface and what players need to succeed.

The first few months of the year have really flown by. Players are already competing in the Monte-Carlo Masters which means the clay season will soon be in full swing. Anyone who knows anything about tennis will know just how different each surface is, and what that means for when you’re trying to predict the winner of a tournament or individual match.

While we need to spend some time on the clay surface itself, I also think it’s important to look back over the first few months of the season to see what we have learnt. We’re already one Grand Slam down and the next is only a few weeks away.

Everyone will likely be focused on the remainder of the tennis season, but what’s already happened can give us some great insight into what to expect over the coming months.

Men’s tennis is both predictable and unpredictable

One of the main issues people have with tennis is the lack of competition when it comes to the elite players. At this moment in time, there are only really three players that see as genuine contenders for a Grand Slam title; Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer.

While other players on the tour certainly have the potential to win a major, the expectation is all on those three players at the top of the pile.

Although Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer have dominated the game for a number of years now, but there is sill an element of unpredictability about the men’s game.

Whether it’s Djokovic struggling with his injuries only to return better than ever, or Nadal changing his style and looking like a new player, or Federer dipping in form only to get back to his best - there are still plenty of shocks in store as far as the big three players are concerned.

This unpredictability was evident throughout the last two ATP Masters 1000 events (Indian Wells and Miami Open) where Djokovic came into the tournaments looking unbeatable. He’d given himself some well-earned rest and was set to breeze past the opposition on his favourite surface.

However, this didn’t happen. Djokovic went out in the Round of 32 at Indian Wells and only went one better at the Miami Open.

The complete opposite was the case for Roger Federer. He looked to be struggling and his doubters were out in force again, but the 20-time Grand Slam winner reached the final of Indian Wells and then went and won the Miami Open.

Just when you thought these two players were heading in completely opposite directions, they’ve turned the public perception on its head within a matter of weeks.

Obviously when players see the likes of Federer return to greatness when he seemed to be struggling it gives them motivation that they can take their performance to another level.

Additionally, the way Djokovic crumbled towards the tail end of the March will give everyone on tour the confidence that the seemingly unbeatable can be beaten.

As we enter the clay season, there are certain players that know the surface will play to their strengths, but we can look to those on the fringes of the elite to emerge and potentially get some big wins.

Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev are always mentioned as potential contenders for a Grand Slam and they will be in with a good chance on clay. This could all depend on who can get past the King of Clay.

What you need to know about the clay surface

The surface a tennis match is obviously only one variable in what is a huge amount of factors that can determine the outcome of a match. The two players playing are the most important part: their recent form, their head-to-head record and how their styles match up against each other are just a few things you can look at. In my eyes, the next thing on your list of things to consider should be the conditions and court surface.

When transitioning from hard courts to clay courts, one of the most difficult things to adapt to is the potential changes in weather. Weather, for the most part, is consistent during the hard court season and when it isn’t, you’re normally forced off the court (rain or in some cases, extreme heat). However, you can be playing in the rain with a temperature of 10°C one day, and beaming sun and 25°C the next during the clay season.

These sudden changes in the weather not only have an impact on how players are feeling and how the ball travels but it completely changes the surface you’re playing on. The ball will get heavy and pick up clay in the rain which makes it travel slowly, but in the heat the surface will dry out and the ball will be flying through the air.

The slower the ball travels, the more suited clay is to defensive players, as it’s more difficult for aggressive players to hit winners (these types of players are more suited to clay when it’s hot and dry).

Why is Nadal so good on clay?

You can’t talk about clay without dedicating some time to Rafael Nadal and just how great he is on the surface. Nadal has only lost once on clay in the last two years (to Dominic Thiem in the quarter-finals of at the Madrid Open in 2018) and his record in Grand Slam events is even better - he’s only lost two best-of-five-set matches on clay in his entire career.

When you consider that Nadal has an incredible record of 57 wins and just 8 losses in clay court tournament finals, and holds the record for the longest single surface win streak in the Open Era (81 matches), it’s clear to see why he is known as the King of Clay.

The question is no longer about how good Nadal is on clay, it’s what makes him so good? If we can understand this then we can get a better idea of how long he might dominate for and when we can expect someone to give him a real test.

The simple answer to this question is adaptability. Nadal’s style is obviously well-suited to clay but it’s the way he can change it up and adapt how he plays depending on the conditions which makes it so difficult to beat him.

If the court is dry then Nadal is able to play to his biggest strength and put insane amounts of spin on the ball - when he gets those shots right it’s virtually impossible for his opponent to return them.

The surface a tennis match is obviously only one variable in what is a huge amount of factors that can determine the outcome of a match.

When he isn’t killing his opponent with top spin forehands, Nadal is using his movement to create ridiculous angles and play shots that other players cannot make and often don’t see coming.

The problem for everyone else on the tour is that even when the weather eliminates Nadal’s biggest weapon, he can rely on his athleticism to defend against his opponents until they gas out and make mistakes, playing themselves out of the match.

The clay season is up and running, and it’s only going to get better from here as we get through some big tournaments before moving on to grass.

All of the attention will be on Nadal and although Federer isn’t a fan of clay, he’s come into some great form so could have his best season for a while on the surface. Djokovic will be looking to bounce back from a rough couple of months, and then there are always the youngsters in and around the top ten who could make the charge for a maiden Grand Slam victory.

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