Time was winding down before the start of the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell. At 1 p.m., Rafael Nadal stepped on to Court 9 of the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona to work on some last-minute adjustments with coaches Carlos Moya and Francis Roig. After an hour of training, the Spaniard headed back to the locker room to decompress before beginning his quest for a 12th crown in Barcelona.
On Wednesday, Nadal outlasted Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer 6-7(7), 6-4, 6-2 advance to the third round, where he’ll face fellow Spaniard David Ferrer.
Twelve titles is an unprecedented benchmark, but for the 32-year-old from Manacor, it's business as usual. His numbers at other clay court events are equally impressive: Nadal is an 11-time champion at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters and emerged victorious eight times at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome. In the 455 matches he’s contested on clay, Nadal has emerged victorious 92 per cent of the time. In all, Nadal has hoisted 57 trophies from tournaments competed on clay. Those credentials have solidified Nadal’s place as the undisputed King of Clay.
So what is it about Nadal that makes him such an unstoppable force on his favorite surface?
Dominic Thiem has an idea. As one of only two players to defeat him once in each of the last two seasons (QF in Rome 2017 and QF in Madrid 2018), the Austrian understands it takes special circumstances and the right conditions to unravel Nadal. Since 2017, they have faced each other seven times in European clay-court events, with Nadal holding a 5-2 edge.
"I think that Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Roland Garros are the tournaments where it is more complicated to beat him,” said Thiem. “He’s at home and in his zone when the courts are slow and it makes landing a winner that much more difficult.
“He’s also a master when it comes to conserving energy. He launches powerful shots, but he knows how to generate just the right amount of power at exactly the right time. Combine that with his mobility on the surface and you’ve got the perfect formula for success on clay.”
Even a surprising 4-6, 2-6 loss last week to eventual champion Fabio Fognini at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters does little to convince Nadal’s peers that he’s anything but invincible. World No. 3 Alexander Zverev is winless against Nadal in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series (0-5), with three of his losses coming on clay.
"He’s a colossus; the best clay-court player in the world," said Zverev. “You know it's never going to be an easy day if you have to play with Nadal on clay."
In addition, the conditions to fight for the Conde de Godó Trophy add an extra element that Sascha does not overlook: Nadal plays at home.
"Facing against him in Spain does not make the challenge easier. We played once in Spain, in Davis Cup [in 2018], and it was a very difficult game,” said Zverev. “I have the feeling that he enjoys it. He knows he's the best and somehow connects with the stands.”
A similar reaction generates Stefanos Tsitsipas’ association to Nadal’s name and the red clay. The Greek already knows what it is to cross Nadal on this surface, having done so last year in the Barcelona final.
”He has a gift ... in my opinion, he’s very fast," says the No. 8 in the world. "He covers the track very well so you always have the feeling that, no matter what stroke you use, you're always behind the ball. He always plays with a lot of depth and has a lot of topspin effect in his shots. On clay, that's not easy to handle."
Denis Shapovalov is another player who has experienced just how powerful Nadal is on this surface. He played the Spaniard last year in the third round of Rome and only managed to win five games.
“You realise why he's so good,” said Shapovalov. “He knows the tactics perfectly. Even if you know what you are going to do, it is very difficult to react or try to stop it. He is so aggressive on this surface and his tactics are so well built.
“He reads your punches and is a complete player in clay, but he’s hard to beat on any surface. He is a great champion and his style of play is very hard. He is a fighter. Even if you go up 40/0 against him, you know you can’t lose concentration. He’s never going to give you a free point and it puts enormous pressure on the opponent. It's something that I've always admired about him and I'm trying to incorporate that into my game."
Another #NextGenATP player, Frances Tiafoe, joked that all clay-court tournaments should carry the Spaniard’s name. Pista Rafa Nadal in Barcelona is apparently not enough.
"I don’t think anyone will ever manage to emulate what he has achieved,” said the American. “He's won Monte Carlo eleven times! You can’t match that. I am happy to see a player who has done that in our sport. Rafa is one of the best players of all time.”