Matt Zemek

First things first, just so you don’t get the wrong idea: No, it’s extremely unlikely that the ATP Tour will find a way to prevent Rafael Nadal from dominating the clay season, especially at Roland Garros. Asking about the ability of the ATP Tour to throw a monkey wrench into Nadal’s clay-court plans is not meant to suggest that an answer will be found.

What’s more important is that the tour stops, reflects, and engages in a process of rethinking the way it plays Nadal on clay. 

An idea common to the experience of all sports is the notion that if you’re going to lose, “go down swinging.” Others might say: “If you’re going to die, at least die trying.” Still others might put it this way: “Don’t passively accept defeat.” In Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes cartoons I watched as a little boy, the refrain came across this way: “Well don’t just stand there — DO SOMETHING.” 

No one is saying or even suggesting that the ATP will change the dynamic against Nadal anytime soon — let’s be clear about that. The point of the above paragraph is that the tour, while Nadal is still imposing and ruthless on clay, should not meekly concede reality. The tour has to become smarter.

Craig O’Shannessy has provided a lot of astute tweets throughout the week in Monte Carlo on the topic of getting Nadal out of his comfort zone. When watching matches on the TennisTV world feed, one could see — in Nadal’s easy Saturday win over Grigor Dimitrov in the Monte Carlo semifinals — Nadal disappear from view when returning first serves from the south end of the court. On second serves, Nadal would step forward just enough that his head could be seen.

This severe return position from Nadal is not unique to clay. He displayed that return position at last year’s U.S. Open. He is comfortable standing near the linesperson’s box because his heavy topspin shots are so hard for opponents to handle. He doesn’t have to stand on the baseline, take the ball early, and blast a flat winner to gain leverage in a point. The tour is well aware of how Nadal returns serve. On clay, where Nadal’s movement and comfort level reach stratospheric heights, the inability of opponents to accumulate large numbers of cheap points on serve against Rafa is a big reason why the King of Clay has cruised into yet another Monte Carlo final. 

It’s definitely time for the tour to reconsider how it handles Nadal’s return game on clay. Will ATP players not just stand there, but actually do something?

I have expressed frustration in the past with WTA players who — when facing an opponent who clearly likes pace — refuse to take pace off the ball. One of the most important things for any competitor to do in live competition is to “not do what your enemy wants you to do.” Players such as Magdalena Rybarikova and Anastasija Sevastova have made considerable gains in recent years by not feeding pace to their opponents, but they are exceptions on the WTA Tour, not the norm. The inability to conceive of playing a match in a different way — outside the prism of linear baseline hitting — has restricted both the growth and the level of success a number of talented WTA players can achieve.

The men’s tour, so constantly dominated by a small group of players for more than a decade — Nadal on clay being the current and most relevant example — has been similarly unable to imagine a different way of playing against elite opposition.

It’s a more-than-fair question: Why haven’t we seen a Nadal opponent hit a soft, short first serve? Akin to a professional basketball player who is TERRIBLE at shooting free throws in the traditional method and thinks it is “girlish” or “unmanly” to shoot free throws in the unorthodox underhand method, male tennis players similarly refuse to accept the notion that it’s okay to hit an untraditional kind of serve against Nadal on clay.

Guys in the ATP locker room have to ask themselves: “Is it more important that I follow a conventional style and not make waves, or is it more important to win, regardless of what other people might say or think about me?” 

To be sure, playing unconventional tennis isn’t something a player can immediately do — as though flipping a switch — and instantaneously gain dramatically better results. Even if an ATP player wanted to use a different approach against Nadal on clay, harnessing the strokes and refining the methods involved in that approach would take some time. Beating Nadal on clay is an almost impossible task regardless of method. Any idea that a change in playing style would easily or immediately alter the competitive balance against Rafa on red brick is not being suggested here. 

The important thing for the ATP Tour to realize is that while there’s no shame in getting crushed by Nadal on red dirt is nothing to be ashamed of, failing to try something different IS worthy of a measure of disappointment. Yes, no tennis player in over 140 years of tennis history has played clay-court tennis better than Nadal — he is that good and deserves that much praise.

In the face of such a challenge, shouldn’t a full tour of players be more dedicated to finding a solution?

The tour isn’t likely to be successful, but it is long past time for ATP players on clay to not just stand there. They need to do something.


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