On Nadal's game

Common wisdom in Tennis sees Roger Federer as the greatest of all time. While this might actually be true, I always believed there is something more interesting and profound and very underappreciated about Rafael Nadal’s game.

Nadal is a player of unique talent, but he has an extraordinary ability no one has ever managed to replicate. He is the greatest of all time on clay.

I've been thinking a lot about why this happens.

Most people will articulate as follows:

  • Nadal grew up on clay courts, it’s his second nature
  • Nadal uses topspin and clay courts aids topspin – the ball kicks higher and makes it harder for the opponent to attack
  • Because of his knee injury, he has physically a better fit on soft rather than hard courts
  • Players’ speed matters more on clay than other courts, and Nadal is the fastest on tour

While all these points are true, none of them is the major reason.

The one reason why he is the greater player on clay the world has ever seen, it’s because he learned to master the “controllable area”.

In every tennis match, like in life, or business, you can control only a certain percentage of things.

In any tennis match, you can control roughly 50% of the game: when the ball is in your half of the court.

You can’t control the ball when it’s outside your area, that’s your opponent’s 50%.

The player who better capitalizes his/her controllable 50% has more chances to win the match. In tennis, players capitalize (aka make points) in only two ways: 1) by hitting winners, or 2) by opponent’s mistakes.

Clay is a slow court. When the ball travels slower, hitting a winner is more difficult and accordingly, points earned from opponents' mistakes are more important.

Nadal is extraordinarily good at not committing mistakes: he never gives opponents cheap points.

Nadal can hit on and on, play on and on.

On clay, Nadal's control of his 50% tends to perfection.

Perseverance, temperament, patience, and stamina are the keys here.

On other courts (grass or hard) his special abilities are still important, but they are an order of magnitude less effective because opponents can hit the ball stronger and capitalize with more winners.

The only way to down Nadal on clay is to either hit through him incredibly hard (like very few players can do) and be as clinical and efficient (error-free) as possible or beat him in his own game by relentlessly wearing him out.

No one has ever really managed the former, and only very few successfully attempted the latter. ATP players know it well.

The effectiveness of your skills depends on territory. Nadal's extraordinary abilities are not as effective on grass or hard as they are on clay courts.

When you’ve found your strenghts, take your time to find out in which "territories" those abilities have a unique strategic advantage. Assessing talent is about discovering someone’s great abilities as much as it is about finding the “territory” where those abilities can be grafted and maximized.

Nadal’s uniqueness on clay allowed him to won 10 Roland Garros in the last 13 editions and reach 81 clay court win streak in 2005–07 (the longest on a single surface in the Open Era in men's singles).

Prediction: Nadal could surpass Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam by continuing to win Roland Garros until he’s 36.