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Nadal's affair with Red Clay - Love or Betrayal
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In the ever competitive world of tennis, only a handful of men have managed 'dominance' in certain aspects of the sport. Where Pete Sampras and Roger Federer will long be remembered for their grasscourt winning streaks and the 13 Wimbledon Singles titles they share between them, RED CLAY will always look for analogies with a name that has become almost synonymous with the surface - RAFAEL NADAL.
ATP's official website recently released a statistical report on players and their claycourt dominance, highlighting the mighty Mallorcan Nadal on top of the list. Well, there is hardly any scope for arguments since the Spaniard has resembled a gladiator every time he has stepped on the red clay. With 29 claycourt titles under his belt, Nadal is definitely an all time leader in claycourt arena. Last year, Nadal ended his ten month title drought with his victorious elation on Monaco's red clay at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters, and never looked back, completing a claycourt sweep with titles in Rome, Madrid and finally Roland Garros in Paris, his fifth French Open crown.
The European claycourt season is without a doubt the most important swing on ATP tour with three masters series titles and a Grand Slam at stake. Nadal has successfully managed to dominate this season for the past five years, winning 5 Roland Garros crowns, 7 Monte Carlo titles, 6 Barcelona Open trophies and 5 Rome Masters among the 29 silverwares that were all conquered on the red dirt.
There has been an interesting pattern in Nadal's career in recent years. The Spaniard was initially tagged a claycourt wonder with no major titles in his resume other than Roland Garros. 2008 finally broke the pattern when Nadal ended Federer's hegemony at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. The Spaniard made the Swiss maestro cut down to tears and sobs just a few months later in Australia and claimed his first major on hard courts. However all said and done, every time Nadal's supremacy has been challenged, he has managed to prove his point on his favourite red clay. This year, Nadal's most assiduous efforts to return to winner's circle went in vain when an undefeated Serbian Novak Djokovic handed him defeats in Indian Wells and Miami finals. It was the red clay of Monte Carlo that finally fetched Nadal solace on court, and with it a much awaited title triumph.
Interestingly, Novak Djokovic decided to give the first clay masters event a miss in anticipation to the extreme fitness and mental requirements for the tournaments ahead, most significant of which is Roland Garros, which is definitely on top of the to-do list for Djokovic at the moment. 2005 French Open champion Thomas Muster, an accompolished claycourt player himself, considers Djokovic to be the No.1 threat in Nadal's road to title defence on Parisian clay - "Nadal is the clear favourite to win again at Roland Garros but Djokovic could challenge him. He can play well on clay and his unbeaten run of matches will have helped him confidence."
So with a clear edge over his contemporaries and equal stakes at the 'all time clay great' title against six time Roland Garros champion Bjorn Borg and 329-75 win-loss record holder Ivan Lendl, what else makes Nadal such a dominant player on the surface that demands more than just technique and fitness.
Three time French Open winner Gustavo Kuerten has his own views about finding success on clay - "In my opinion the heart has a direct link with the clay. You have to get involved and practice for hours."
Nadal has emerged as a fine mix of power, fitness ane mental toughness that is needed in long rallies on clay. Nadal's ability to find near-impossible angles to execute his shots makes him such a tough opponent. Winning strategies on clay are a different ball game altogether. As opposed to the fast surfaces such as grass and hard courts, clay demands perseverance and patience to find the right time, correct shot and the apt execution to seal the deal. Nadal seems to have mastered that art, with his leopard-like court movement, tenacious shotmaking and fierce competitive spirit to get past the best in the business.
So the real question is - Will the KING OF CLAY be dethroned this year by the man who handed him defeats on more occasions than one? Will Novak Djokovic continue to remain undefeated and break into Nadal's backyard, his very-own territory? The best between Nadal and Djokovic on clay was seen in Madrid two years ago when Nadal took four gruelling hours of tennis to battle past the Serb in a marathon final set tie-break. Djokovic is definitely a better version of himself at the moment and is ready to give Nadal his toughest run on European clay this year. After defending the Monte Carlo crown, Nadal's next tests are in Rome and Madrid, followed by the ultimate test - Roland Garros.
Forming an opinion may be an occupational requirement but it certainly isn't always a wise thing to do for a critic. However, true to form, in my opinion, besides a loss or two in the events to come, Nadal will find the focus, hunger and the determination to edge past his most resilient opponents during the fortnight in Paris, that is unless a certain Swedish Gentleman, or some one of his calibre, rises to the occasion on a CHOSEN day to end Nadal's penultimate dominance on his beloved red-dirt. We will have to wait and watch as the action unfolds in the finest of European venues in the weeks to come.
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