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4 reasons why the King of Clay is not back… yet

Apr 20, 2016
written by: Rob Cianfarani
written by: Rob Cianfarani
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Has the Rafael Nadal regained his throne?

The King of Clay won his ninth Monte Carlo Masters trophy and his first ATP World Tour title this year. In his previous eight wins at Monte Carlo, seven (!) of them led to the Spaniard winning the French Open. With his confidence on the mend, many pundits are tapping him for a 10th French Open title. However, none of his 2016 stats support that prediction, so, any suggestions that Nadal is back to his best would be extremely premature.

With Roland Garros right around the corner, let’s look at four reasons why Rafa hasn’t regained his top form… yet.

Winning ways

Undoubtedly, Rafa Nadal is the greatest clay-courter of all time. He has video game numbers:

  • Nine French Open titles
  • 68 total titles, 48 on clay (one off all-time record)
  • 48-8 in clay finals
  • Eight STRAIGHT Monte Carlo titles
  • 412-47 career record on clay
  • More clay titles than the rest of the top 10 COMBINED

Even with all these accolades, Rafa is not the player he used to be. Since 2006, his match winning percentage on clay has declined significantly, especially in recent years. This decline is mirrored when looking at his point winning percentage on clay. The deterioration of his body and self-confidence in recent years have made him vulnerable, even on clay. If he wants to truly regain ‘untouchable’ status, these figures need to improve.

Rafael Nadal Winning Percentages on Clay

Soft serving

Rafa has never been known for a huge serve, not even in his prime. He was and is known for a devastating return game, unbelievable defense, and an unbreakable will. Although his first serve is underwhelming on clay, his second serve winning percentage was always high, because of his speed and shot-making abilities. So, when we combine already mediocre serving statistics with a declining serve speed, he will get broken more, and by more, I mean A LOT more.

Rafael Nadal Serving Percentages on Clay

Against Dominic Thiem in Monte Carlo, Rafa faced 16 break points on his serve, but he just so happened to save 15 of them. He faced 47 break points in five matches at Monte Carlo – needless to say, he is holding on to his service games by a thread.

Return despair

When imagining the Rafa of old, one would picture suffocating defense mixed with punishing offense. He had the ability to turn a point around in the blink of an eye. With the wear and tear on his body, his ability to convert defense into offense has all but gone away. We can actually track his declining returning prowess on clay, and despite his tournament win, the decline has continued into 2016.

Rafael Nadal Returning Percentages on Clay

Before we can declare that Rafa is back to top form, the foundation of his game, return of serve, has to come back to him.

Dominance Ratio

“I am what I am today,” Rafa said. “Rafael Nadal of 2016 will not be the same of 2009 or 2008 again. Every year is different. I don’t want to compare myself or try to analyse if I am the same like before or not.”

See – even Rafa knows it. Nadal used to demolish or destroy or *insert powerful word here* opponents on clay. For a good 10-year period, the entire world thought he was a god on clay. ‘Can’t be beaten’ and ‘indestructible’ were the most commonly used words when ‘Rafa’ and ‘clay’ appeared in the same sentence.

A player’s Dominance Ratio is (% of points won on opponents’ serves) / (% of points lost on own serve). DR is a great predictor of winning percentage.

Rafael Nadal Dominance Ratio on Clay

Two facts remain – the decline of Nadal IS real, and it HAS continued in 2016. Winning a tournament is an extremely positive sign for Rafa, but if the numbers tell us anything, it’s that he hasn’t returned to his kingly form just yet.

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