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2013 French Open: Rafael Nadal, his wrists, and his reign

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With his power, his speed, and that ridiculous lefty topspin, the eight-time French Open champion is better on clay than anybody has ever been on any surface.

Clive Brunskill

Rafael Nadal is better on clay than any player ever was on a single surface

Fun fact: Albert Costa has as many grand slam titles as Andy Roddick. Costa never reached higher than sixth in the ATP rankings and only advanced past the fourth round of a slam twice. But like Yannick Noah (1983), Andres Gomez (1990), Thomas Muster (1995), and Carlos Moya (1998) before him, and like Juan Carlos Ferrero (2003) and Gaston Gaudio (2004) after him, Costa plowed through two weeks at Roland Garros in 2002 with defense and dirty shoes and lifted the the Coupe des Musquetaires. Gustavo Kuerten built a hall-of-fame resume with three French Open titles and never even made it to the semifinal of a different slam. Sergi Bruguera won two French Opens and never reached the quarterfinals of a different slam.

American tennis fans in the 1990s got used to the cycle: Root for your favorite American male in Australia, cede the game to clay-courters for a few months, then start caring 100 percent again around Wimbledon. It was just easier that way. Sure, there was a strange string of three American titles in four years (Michael Chang in 1989, Jim Courier in 1991-92), but in the 34 years before Chang and the 21 years after Courier, American men won once at Roland Garros (Andre Agassi in 1999). You and I have combined for as many French Open titles as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Pete Sampras.

It's just a completely different game. American men love to hit the ball hard and flat and lean on a big, heavy serve. Clay-courters just step behind the baseline, chase down every ball, whip topspin winners to the corners of the court, and send the Americans home. Clay-court tennis is a sport of endurance, topspin, and impossible consistency.

It was actually a pretty big deal that Americans John Isner and Sam Querrey made the third round this year. That was progress. (There are seven rounds, by the way.)

Though he has found success on the hard courts as well -- as attested by two trips to the Australian Open semifinals (2011, 2013) and two to the U.S. Open semifinals (2007, 2012) -- David Ferrer is a clay-courter. It is his natural surface, as he showed by chopping Jo-Wilfried Tsonga down at the ankles in Friday's French Open semifinals. Ferrer almost never makes errors, chases down every shot you hit, leverages you into the area of the court you don't want to be in, and ends points with either his own winners or your errors. He is a brilliant tennis player, one of the four or five best in the world at the moment; his late-career renaissance (he is playing by far the best tennis of his life at 31) has been inspiring and marvelous to watch. We continuously underestimate him, and he continuously defeats almost all challengers ranked below him.

If tennis were folk music, David Ferrer would be Donovan. He has incorporated every lesson his genre has to offer, mastered his craft, and even found success outside of his genre. However, the problem for him, and for every other clay-courter folk musician in the last decade, is that Rafael Nadal is Bob Dylan. He has not only mastered folk music, he has reinvented it, swallowed it whole, rendered it quaint, and relegated it to the low numbers on the F.M. dial. He does every single thing that David Ferrer can do, only he does it in the body of a cornerback, with more speed, more power, and more spin. He even does it left-handed for good measure. If Ferrer had been born a decade earlier, he could have perhaps won a title or two at Roland Garros. But now, his style alone isn't good enough. It is both a shame, and a marvel.

Rafael Nadal has now won more French Open titles than any man in the last century has won at a single slam. Roy Emerson won six Australian Opens in the 1960s. Cute. William Larned, Richard Sears, and Bill Tilden each won seven U.S. Open titles 80+ years ago. Good for them. Roger Federer (2000s), Pete Sampras (1990s), and William Renshaw (1880s) each won seven Wimbledons. And they deserve a hearty handshake for that. But only Nadal and a Frenchman named Max Decugis (1900s) have won eight, and they each did so at Roland Garros. In the nine years before Nadal played his first French Open, seven different men won the title; two have since, and one (Roger Federer) was probably lucky that someone else took out Nadal.

Rafael Nadal has no wrists

As impressive as Nadal's power, speed, and defense are, it is the wicked spin he generates that separates him most. He uses an old-fashioned, adjusted grip for his forehand, but that doesn't tell the story. Look at how far he cocks his wrist back. The only explanation can be that there actually isn't any wrist there at all. The wrist just runs too much interference for a person of any athletic caliber to flop the hand back to such an intense angle hundreds of times per match. Nadal struggled with tendonitis in his knees in 2012, but somehow his wrists remain healthy; this only makes sense if there are no wrists in the first place, just a hand hanging from the arm.

Regardless of the status (or non-status) of Nadal's carpal bones, the torque he is able to develop on his topspin is both unnatural and deadly. On other courts, his ball bounces like it's on clay. On clay, his ball bounces out of the stadium. He draws you so far wide on his serve that, if you are able to return it at all, he's already ended the point with a winner by the time you get back onto the court. The ball picks up speed after it bounces, and it is almost always heading away from you. The only defense is to just starting bombing away. Hit every shot you can reach as hard as you can, and hope it both lands inbounds and puts him on his heels. The only man to ever beat Nadal at Roland Garros, Robin Soderling, did just that, then kept doing it all the way to the 2009 French finals, where he was beaten by Federer. It's how Lukas Rosol beat Nadal at Wimbledon last year, and it's how both Daniel Brands and Martin Klizan were able to take sets from Nadal early in the tournament while Nadal was finding his service rhythm. (Remember when we were worried about that? Good times.) Federer, potentially the greatest player of all-time, has tried this aggressive approach and has to show for it a lifetime record of 1-14 on clay versus Nadal. (He's 9-6 on other surfaces.) And poor David Ferrer doesn't even have those clubs in the bag.

What kind of player overtakes Nadal on clay?

One day, someone else will win at Roland Garros. John McEnroe eventually caught Bjorn Borg. Federer overtook Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. And eventually Father Time caught up to Roy Emerson in Melbourne (he won both the Aussie and French Opens in 1967 at age 30, then never advanced to even another slam semifinal). But while Djokovic has surpassed Nadal on other surfaces (he has won all five non-clay matches versus Nadal since the start of 2011) and took Nadal deep into the fifth set in the semifinals, he couldn't close the deal. Let's pretend neither Djokovic nor Father Time (or Father Tendonitis) finish Nadal's reign. What kind of player does?

The two options are basically a Super Djokovic or a Super Soderling. Just as Nadal was factory-built to beat Federer, Djokovic was built to beat Nadal. Beginning in 2011, Djokovic combined a level of fitness, defense, and consistency with which Nadal struggled to cope. No player in the game hits as consistently deep in the court as Djokovic; it is almost impossible to play a strong offensive game against him. He not only reaches every ball but consistently pins you behind the baseline in a defensive position. But he still hasn't figured out how to consistently take down the greatest clay-court player of all-time on his home surface. Super Djokovic would just be a player who is a little bigger and a little stronger than the current World No. 1, someone with a little more offensive punch but the same ability to defend and turn tables in a given point.

Super Soderling, meanwhile, will just look like Soderling did against Nadal in 2009, only he'll look like that all the time. Soderling's career has been derailed by illness, but even when he was healthy, he didn't always look as good as he did in beating Nadal. He has won 10 ATP tournaments and reached as high as fourth in the ATP rankings, but his ceiling was not his norm. When he is (was?) on his game, he is ridiculously powerful, utilizing his length (6'4) to simply smoke the tennis ball at ridiculous angles. He blew Nadal off the court in 2009 but has only been consistent enough to reach two slam finals (the 2009 French loss to Federer, and a straight-set, "Oh, you thought you had overtaken me?" loss to Nadal in 2010). Super Soderling is consistently deadly.

To become more commonly known as the greatest tennis player of all-time, Nadal will have to figure out how to re-establish the upper hand on Djokovic on other surfaces. But each spring on the dirt, the world keeps trying to figure out how to even briefly get the upper hand on Nadal. He is the greatest ever on clay, wrists or no wrists.


A Public Service Announcement

I have been told by many friends (both of the online and actually-in-real-life variety) that Twitter has made them a bigger college football fan. If you follow the right people -- the SBN'ers, of course, plus the Andy Stapleses, Adam Kramers, and Michael Felders of the world -- then you find yourself in the realm of the greatest sports bar ever, one full of inside jokes (Fat Guy Touchdowns, the Notorious TOB, et cetera) and interaction; it makes following the sport more enjoyable than it already was. Twitter does nice things sometimes!

If you were ever thinking about rekindling an old love of tennis that was wounded when Andre Agassi retired, or when Roger Federer started winning everything, then I recommend using Twitter for the same purposes. Follow these people (and follow who they're following), and watch as your love of tennis blossoms once again. Mine did. And I already liked it quite a bit before.

(I would recommend Brian Phillips, too, but you probably already follow him. My goodness, I hope you do, anyway, otherwise why are you on Twitter?)

Wimbledon's just around the corner.