Rafael Nadal has fully earned his 'King of Clay' tag, but why is he so dominant on the red dirt?
An astonishing 56 of his 78 career titles have come on the surface, including 11 in each of Monte Carlo and Barcelona – a tally he will be hoping to match by defending his French Open crown over the coming fortnight.
Nadal has lost just 36 of his 444 ATP matches on clay and this month set an Open Era record for the most successive sets won on a single surface, surpassing John McEnroe's 49 on carpet with 50 on clay.
It is an unprecedented level of supremacy. To get a better understanding of how Nadal has been able to make clay courts his sole dominion Omnisport spoke to Dr Tim Bennett, a senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Biomechanics at Leeds Beckett University.
Q: So what is biomechanics?
A: Biomechanics gives us an insight into how the human body moves and it can relate to factors like forces. We can also look at what's known as kinematic parameters - how the body moves and how we can quantify that, looking at things like angles and velocities and what that means to a performer.
Q: Why is Nadal so successful on clay?
A: Typically clay is the slower surface so when the ball bounces on the surface it tends to bounce higher. It comes off the surface with a higher angle and it also has a little bit more drag in the ball and this is the kind of the framework which facilitates Nadal's success.
Q: How does a higher bounce and slower court help him?
A: The main strength of Nadal's forehand is the amount of top spin he can generate and a lot of that comes from his own unique technique, the way he performs that forehand shot. So where some players almost have more of a horizontal technique with their forehand, Nadal goes from low to high and generates that top spin and what that does is two things: one, it enables the ball to travel over the net at a high distance which reduces the chance of hitting the ball into the net and having an error, and also the top spin essentially facilitates the drop of the ball. Again, it's just another way of reducing the margin for error and increasing the likelihood that he can get the ball back and make the opponent play another shot.
Q: And why do others struggle?
A: Because it's a harder surface the ball is going to bounce up higher, which, if you're looking at someone like Roger Federer and you're hitting it to their backhand, essentially it puts the opponent in quite an awkward position. Where they'd normally hit it in a lower comfort zone, they have to reach that little bit higher which makes it difficult to not only control the ball, but also to generate the power to put your opponent at a disadvantage. When you've got a big server like a John Isner or an Ivo Karlovic, or someone like Federer, who is very precise, [on other surfaces] you tend to see more of a one-two punch combination where a good serve will put you in a strong position to then hit a winning stroke. Whereas with the clay, the surface essentially slows down the rallies. So the players who have stronger power games, that's negated and plays into the hands of someone like Nadal, who's more comfortable hitting longer rallies.
Q: Why isn't it the same for Nadal on other surfaces?
A: If you take a surface like grass where the ball is going to bounce a little bit lower, with Nadal's technique, because he is starting in a lower position, it means he's got less to work with to generate that horizontal force to gain speed across the court, but also to generate that upward velocity as well which is going to facilitate that top spin. Hard courts are quicker, which means there's less time to get in position, get the right foot position and then have that optimal technique. So the combination of the high bounce and the slow surface does cater itself towards Nadal's forehand technique.
Q: Why is his backhand so strong on clay?
A: We're looking at similar biomechanical principles in the backhand as we've seen in the forehand so everything starts off in the legs and we certainly see the flexion and the force generation that take place in the feet prior to contact with the ball itself. Again, we see a proximal to distal sequencing throughout the kinetic chain, and Nadal has a very powerful backhand, he gets a good range of motion so we see what's known as a stretch-shortening cycle, so if you imagine the line created from the shoulders and the hips, what we tend to see is a lot of rotation in the shoulders, the arms are extended, and also Nadal's right hand is his dominant hand in some respects, it's the hand he writes with, so he can generate a lot of force from both to then control and direct the ball in a specific avenue of direction. He has a very good co-ordination pattern which generates from the foot itself. What we tend to see is he also keeps his arms quite close to the ball before release and what that does is it facilitates angular velocity, which can then be translated into this linear speed in the ball which is so important. And typically we see with double-handed backhands it helps control the movement as well, so the accuracy you see with a double-handed backhand in some instances can be more precise than a single-handed backhand, just simply because of the more contained action in the movement itself. So although we focus on Nadal's forehand as his main weapon, his backhand is arguably more of a defensive stroke but it's certainly a powerful offensive weapon as well.
Q: How do you stop him?
A: There's two strategies. One is you try and play through him, hit the ball as hard as possible, which is obviously very high risk and if you're in a purple patch the chances are you could potentially get him maybe over a best of three sets. In a grand slam we can see it's very, very difficult. An alternative to the power play is precision, efficiency and almost trying to play Nadal at his own game. So hitting the corners, making him work hard as well and as we've seen in the past very few players have been able to do that. Perhaps the exception is someone like Novak Djokovic, where he can play that quite attritional game - very precise, forces the player to make the mistake.
Friendship goals— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) May 26, 2018
@ RafaelNadal + @ DjokerNole
# RG18 pic.twitter.com/W5LfxCdvU3
Q: So who plays in a way that can seriously challenge Nadal?
A: One is Novak Djokovic for obvious reasons. We've seen this year Dominic Thiem has a win over Nadal [on clay] so he's obviously got the potential to do that, whether he can do that over five sets is another matter. And the rising star in tennis at the moment is Alexander Zverev, who is 21 years of age. He's a tall, rangy player but he's very technically gifted and he pushed Nadal recently at the Rome Masters. We saw an indication there that we have a player who has a game who can challenge Nadal. With his extra height he can almost negate and take advantage of that higher bounce in Nadal's forehand and backhand side and that can actually play more into his natural hitting spot.
Q: How long can he maintain this dominance?
A: Obviously time waits for no person and inevitably there will be that decline, whether it occurs this season at the French Open we're not too sure, but perhaps we will see this transition over the next year or two where the young players are coming up and getting stronger. But certainly the way his game is and as we've talked about the slower surface of clay, I can't see any reason why we would see any type of drop off in Nadal's performance over the next year or two.
|Widnes defiant after Super League relegation, Saints outclass Wolves|
|NFL must go back to college to eradicate the tie|
|Real Madrid 1 Espanyol 0: Asensio downs old club to earn narrow win|
|Sampdoria 0 Inter 1: Brozovic wins it late after VAR takes centre stage|
|Rudy takes blame for James goal in Bayern win|
|Tiger charges into four-shot lead|
|Players have given their lives to Burnley - Dyche|
|QPR 0 Norwich City 1: Pukki hits winner as hot streak continues|
|Nuno proud of Wolves character in Man United draw|
|Playing for England my dream, says in-form Maddison|
|Brighton and Hove Albion 1 Tottenham 2: Kane on target as Spurs issue firm response|
|Schalke 0 Bayern Munich 2: James and Lewandowski deliver another win|
|Getafe 0 Atletico Madrid 2: Lemar inspires routine win|
|Championship Review: Monk ruins Leeds´ unbeaten streak, McGinn screamer fails to save Villa|
|Bale benched for Real Madrid-Espanyol|
|Biggar fails to rescue Saints at Bath, Bristol and Wasps win|
|Zaha affected by back injury – Hodgson|
|Mourinho slams Manchester United attitude after Wolves stalemate|
|Herbert holds Portugal Masters advantage|
|Warnock blasts ´elementary´ Cardiff mistakes|
|Shaqiri substitution not easy for Klopp|
|Guardiola hopes for even more to come from Aguero|
|Fellaini accepts United closing gap to Premier League summit will be difficult|
|Klizan to face Thiem in St. Petersburg final, Bachinger shocks Nishikori|
|Klopp: Van Dijk injury not serious|
|Mourinho annoyed by Man Utd´s blunt attack in Wolves draw|
|Valverde not ready to consider Barca contract extension|
|Gattuso wary of wounded Atalanta as Higuain receives further advice|
|Burnley 4 Bournemouth 0: Rampant Clarets claim first Premier League win of the season|
|Crystal Palace 0 Newcastle United 0: Sakho misses sitter as Magpies remain winless|
|Cardiff City 0 Manchester City 5: Aguero celebrates new deal with goal in 300th game|
|Leicester City 3 Huddersfield Town 1: Comeback win eases pressure on Puel|
|Liverpool 3 Southampton 0: Salah ends goalless run as Reds make best Premier League start|
|Manchester United 1 Wolves 1: Moutinho stunner sees Red Devils falter at home again|
|Rashid, Hasan and Asghar fined by ICC|
|Barnsley game postponed after medical emergency|
|Johnny Manziel sacked five times in ugly CFL loss|
|Fosu-Mensah says sorry for tackle on Deeney|
|Kluivert to get Roma chance as Di Francesco demands focus|
|Robinson optimistic injured Cronk will be fit for Grand Final|
|WATCH: Ferguson given immense ovation on Old Trafford return|
|Three in a row for Lorenzo at Aragon|
|Warner makes 155 on Australian grade cricket return|
|Pain-free Kyrie Irving ready to lead Celtics to NBA title|
|Firmino returns as Shaqiri gets first league start|
|Fulham 1 Watford 1: Mitrovic shines late to spoil Gray´s day|
|Ronaldo vows to lose weight and assist training after Real Valladolid purchase|
|Patriots WR Josh Gordon listed as questionable to face Lions|
|500th goal was crucial to my new book - Ibrahimovic|
|Roosters survive Cronk injury to hold off Souths and reach Grand Final|
|Murray announces intention to end season early|
|I want to play right-back for England - Walker|
|I would beat Bolt for speed on the pitch, claims Traore|
|Ferguson returns to Old Trafford for Manchester United v Wolves|
|Walker ´hurt´ by Pochettino claims over Tottenham exit|
|Douglas Costa has paid his fine for Sassuolo spitting incident – Allegri|
|Djokovic: Sock gave me karma back for hitting Federer|
|Anthony Joshua v Alexander Povetkin: Tale of the tape|
|Wang thrashes Putintseva to win Guangzhou title|
|There is no problem with Cavani - Tuchel silences rumours of PSG rift|
|Wilder & Fury sign contracts for December 1 bout|
|Neymar is the Kim Kardashian of football, claims Barton|
|We did not want to sell him - Perez insists Madrid got ´highest value´ for Ronaldo|
|Osaka continues run, Pliskova awaits in Tokyo final|
|Cardinals keep pace in wildcard race with win over Giants|
|Djokovic hits Federer, pair lose in doubles at Laver Cup|
|Nowitzki likely to come off bench for Mavericks in 21st season|
|Red Wings´ Green battling ´virus that attacked his liver´|
|They said I couldn´t score goals – Ibrahimovic hits back at early critics|
|Slater charged, set to miss Grand Final|