French Open 2012: Is Rafael Nadal Playing His Best Tennis?

Is Rafael Nadal playing the best clay-court tennis of his career? And what does Varvara Lepchenko need to do to knock off Petra Kvitova?

With Monday's action already underway, let's take a look at a couple of the more interesting matches remaining on the docket.

Men's Fourth Round

No. 2 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 13 Juan Monaco (Match No. 4, Court Suzanne Lenglen)

First things first: while anything is possible in tennis, the odds are very, very good that Rafael Nadal is going to destroy Juan Monaco Monday in the French Open's fourth round. He has played seven sets versus Monaco on clay in his career; their scores: 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. Monaco ranks 15th in the world, in part because of his clay-court abilities; Nadal, however, seems to possess every single skill in Monaco's arsenal, plus about 50 percent more power. He can play defense as well as any "clay-court specialist" around, but his offense is also other-worldly. There's a reason he is only 26 and already considered the best clay-courter of all-time.

So instead of worrying too much about the ins and outs of today's match, let's address a more interesting question: is Nadal playing the best tennis of his career? While two of tennis' Big Three have shown kinks at Roland Garros this year -- Novak Djokovic dropped the first two sets of his fourth-round match before rallying on Sunday, and Roger Federer was taken to four sets in his second, third and fourth-round matches -- Nadal has cruised, dropping only 17 games in nine sets. And his numbers for the clay court season as a whole have been as good as ever.

Rafael Nadal On Clay
Category 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005
Pct of 1st Serve Pts Won 75% 70% 73% 70% 69% 72% 69% 70%
Pct of 2nd Serve Pts Won 57% 57% 58% 57% 58% 57% 58% 56%
Pct of Service Games Won 88% 83% 91% 85% 84% 87% 84% 84%
Pct of Service Pts Won 69% 66% 69% 66% 66% 68% 66% 66%
Pct of 1st Serve Return Pts Won 42% 39% 38% 38% 45% 41% 39% 42%
Pct of 2nd Serve Return Pts Won 58% 61% 60% 58% 60% 59% 56% 59%
Pct of Return Games Won 45% 44% 41% 43% 51% 45% 40% 46%
Pct of Return Points Won 48% 47% 47% 46% 50% 48% 46% 48%
Games Lost, First Three Rounds
Of French Open
17 42 23 24 19 23 34 25

Now, there are some limitations to data like this. First of all, Nadal's 2012 percentages will, in theory, drop as he faces stiffer competition at the French Open. For starters, a red hot Nicolas Almagro awaits him in the quarterfinals if he does defeat Monaco on Monday. Plus, Nadal has occasionally faced rather stiff competition early on in the French: He needed five sets to take out John Isner in 2011 (Isner has since risen into the top 10), and he faced a young Juan Martin Del Potro in the first round in 2007. Still, it is difficult to ignore that he has dominated at a higher level at the French than he had to date. It is also difficult to ignore how well he has done in 2012 overall -- he is winning his highest percentage of service points and returning better than he has since 2008. If he is able to close out and win his seventh French title, we might look back on this as either his best, or second-best (behind 2008) clay court season.

Women's Fourth Round

No. 4 Petra Kvitova vs. Varvara Lepchenko (Match No. 5, Court Philippe Chatrier)

Only one American woman remains in the draw after Sloane Stephens' competitive 7-5, 6-4 loss to Sam Stosur on Sunday. Varvara Lepchenko hasn't been American very long; she earned her American citizenship in 2007 after making the move from Uzbekistan to Allentown, Pennsylvania, as a political refugee. But after years of grinding away at professional tennis' lower levels, she has surged in 2012. She began the year ranked 110th, defeated Julia Goerges (currently No. 27) in Qatar in February, defeated Francesca Schiavone (No. 12) in Madrid, and found herself ranked a career-high 59th in mid-May.

The 26-year-old has now kicked her game up another notch. She won three three-set matches in the tournament's first week, advancing beyond the second round of a slam for the first time. She took out No. 19 Jelena Jankovic, 6-4 in the third set, in the second round; then she took out 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, 8-6 in the third set. It has been a dramatic run for the lefty, but if she is to continue the run, she will have to take out a top five opponent for the first time in her career.

Petra Kvitova is the defending Wimbledon champion and the highest-ranked lefty in the women's game. She showed some vulnerability in losing the second set to Nina Bratchikova in the third round, but she has dropped just 10 games in her other six sets. She is an aggressive offensive player, and when she is in a rhythm, she can dominate. She has played Lepchenko once -- Miami 2011 on a hard court -- and won easily, 6-1, 6-2.

Lepchenko has advanced to the fourth round because of a ferocious service return. She has broken serve 21 times in nine sets (2.3 per set) and has taken 86 points off of her opponent's first serve, second-most in the tournament. Her own serve is rather average -- she has won 58 percent of her first-serve points (tournament average: 60 percent) and 50 percent of her second-serve points (tournament average: 46 percent) -- but Kvitova has shown some vulnerability in this regard, winning just 43 percent of her second-serve points against Bratchikova. If Kvitova is missing on her big first serve, Lepchenko can dictate points and break Kvitova enough to make this a match. But if Kvitova is winning her service games easily early on, she will probably roll to the quarterfinals.

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