Nadal's success on clay rivals Borg
Rafael Nadal is way too humble to say he's capable of pulling off the same monumental feat he did last year on red clay: going undefeated and winning all three Masters Series titles as well as the French Open.
While Novak Djokovic, who went undefeated on the hard courts, was undoubtedly the best player of the first quarter of this year, as Nadal's compatriot Fernando Verdasco recently said, the Serbian is in Nadal's territory now.
Last year, Nadal won 22 straight matches on dirt and lost just two sets in the four tournaments. That's a remarkable achievement, right up there with the legendary Bjorn Borg, who only lost three sets in four tournaments in the spring of 1980 on red clay. The 11-time Grand Slam champion Borg suffered one hiccup, a three-set loss in semifinals of the Nation's Cup to Guillermo Vilas. But two weeks later the Ice Man won his fifth French Open, losing only 38 games in seven matches, winning the title with a 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 wipeout of Vitas Gerulaitis in the final.
Borg was so dominant that spring that in Paris, American player Vic Amaya called Roland Garros "The Borg Invitational."
The same thing could have been said last year of Nadal's reign over the clay-court season, where he was rarely threatened. This week he's in Monte Carlo attempting to win his record seventh title, which, given how historically strong the fields have been in Princess Caroline's playground, would be a solid gold medal of honor.
Last year, Nadal lost just 14 games in five matches at Monte Carlo. He then went to Rome and actually lost a set in the semifinals to a zoning Ernest Gulbis. Madrid was his next stop, where he also lost a set — to Nicolas Almagro in the semis — before being pushed a bit by ultra-rival Roger Federer in the final. But he still came away with a 6-4, 7-6 victory.
And of course after Robin Soderling stunned a sore-kneed Nadal at the 2009 French Open, the Spaniard returned to the scene of the crime in 2010 and didn't drop a set en route to his fifth crown in Paris, burying Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in the final.
"What I did last year, winning Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros, was historic," Nadal said in Monte Carlo. "I don't think that I can do it this year. It didn't happen in 50 or 60 years. So I guess I can't do the same two times in a row."
Maybe he won't, but who is to doubt that Nadal won't at least win three big crowns during the clay-court swing? In two final-round victories at Indian Wells and Miami, Djokovic showed that it is possible to play inside the baseline and crowd Nadal on hard courts. However, the Serbian will need to commit to at least another 4-6 balls every point if he's going to hurt the Spaniard on clay, because the slowness of the surface allows him to defend with great alacrity.
A whopping 29 of Nadal's 43 titles have come on clay. Of Borg's 63 titles, 30 came on dirt. Nadal has more than proven himself on every other surface, winning majors on grass at Wimbledon and on hard courts at the U.S. and Australian Opens. Borg won five Wimbledon's, ignored Australia (few stars played the event in the 1970s) and came up short four times at the U.S. Open, once on clay and three times on hard courts.
Borg, who ended his career prematurely at the age of 26 due to burnout, had his last great year on tour in 1980, during which he turned 24. He won his fifth Wimbledon title that year but was also no slouch on clay, taking crowns at the Pepsi Grand Slam in Florida, Nice, Monte Carlo and Roland Garros.
Nadal will celebrate his 25th birthday at the French Open. Borg won his sixth and final Roland Garros title in 1981 at 25 years old, so if Nadal wins his sixth this year, he'll be on par with the Swede. And in another year, Nadal could surpass the man whom former French, U.S. and Australian Open champion Vilas said was "unbeatable" on clay on a good day would be a remarkable achievement.
"What Borg has in common with Nadal is that they have the two best heads I've ever seen on clay," said legendary coach Jose Higueras, who as a player was 1-9 against Borg. "They have the unique ability to play every point the same and that's remarkable. I beat Bjorn once when he was about 15 and then he got stronger. If you couldn't come in and take time away from him, serve and volley and not give him rhythm like (Adriano) Panatta once did in Paris, you had no chance. I didn't have the weapons to do that. I'd play the best I could and he'd beat me 6-2, 6-1. His footwork was incredible. Anybody who played from the back had no chance on clay."
Unless Djokovic shows us something we have rarely seen from him on the surface, he's not going to pummel Nadal from the backcourt on clay. Nadal is too fast, actually likes sliding into shots and has a heavy spin which is more effective on the surface than it is on hard courts. He'll face Finland's Jarkko Nieminen in his opening match in Monte Carlo on Wednesday, and with Djokovic skipping the tournament, only Federer appears he has the tools to beat him on clay on a great day.
Like Borg, Nadal is tireless on the surface, and doesn't mind, as Borg once said to Vilas, playing "lots of 47-ball rallies." Add an improved first serve to his otherwise airtight clay-court game and Nadal looks like the perfect prototypical clay-court player. Even when he's off his game, he can still go into a defensive posture and grind out wins. No man on tour really wants to stay out there with him and contest incredibly physical and at times monotonous matches.
As the Mexican clay-courter Raul Ramirez once asked after being crushed by Borg at the 1978 French Open: "Why so many balls?"