The American tennis great John McEnroe once described beating Rafael Nadal on clay as ‘the toughest task in tennis’. It’s difficult to argue with that claim. The Spaniard’s exceptional career on the red dust speaks for itself and his successes are too many to list in full in a short article, but 10 titles and just two losses at the French Open provide sufficient proof of Nadal’s unique dominance.
Following an injury-disrupted 2016 that influenced results and saw Nadal claim ‘only’ two of the five clay-court titles on the ATP tour while retreating halfway through the French Open, the Spaniard recovered last season, and was defeated in just one match, succeeded in winning four titles and completed his ‘La Decima’ at the Roland Garros stadium in the French Open. This contributed in no small measure to Nadal regaining his top ranking in tennis. Could he, however, become the victim of his own success?
Nadal holds a slender 100-point lead over second-ranked Roger Federer, who lost the No. 1 title after his defeat in the 2018 Miami Open. So for the 16-time grand champion to prevent his Swiss competitor from reclaiming top spot ahead of his bid for a ninth Wimbledon title in July, Nadal will need to replicate his 2017 achievements. He could stumble in one tournament and progress beyond the Spaniard quarter-finals, which he lost to Dominic Thiem last year but four titles, including an 11th French Open, will be what Nadal needs to achieve in order to retain his No 1 world ranking.
After his early withdrawal from the Miami Open due to stomach flu in 2016, Federer, not surprisingly, proclaimed he would once again be skipping the entire clay court season. Federer, preferring to focus his strengths on his grass court swing, applied the same strategy last year with successful results, including an eighth Wimbledon title and has concluded the best way to plot an assault on title No 9 is to save his body from the rigours of the clay court.
The decision in 2017 was based on Federer’s fitness, having returned in January from a six-month knee injury layoff. His decision to continue not to participate in tournaments on the clay court in 2018 has been criticised, particularly by Spanish player Feliciano Lopez, who said Federer should respect the tour and compete the whole year.
The French Open championship will once again be on a clay court and Federer announced in March that he was not competing. While not as successful on clay as Nadal, Federer has still won 11 clay court titles over his career, an extraordinary achievement on his least-favoured surface. That, however, is likely to be that as Federer, as the oldest No 1. in professional tennis, may be about to bid farewell forever.