John McEnroe sputtered when asked recently to pick his favorite for the men’s title, the answer struck him as so obvious. None other than Bjorn Borg, whose record six French titles was eclipsed by Nadal last year, considers the 26-year-old Spaniard the best men’s clay-court player of all time, hailing him as “an artist” on the surface.
That said, there are ways to attack Nadal on the finicky terre battue (“beaten earth”) of Roland Garros in the view of seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert, who compiled an unparalleled 125-match clay-court winning streak during her Hall of Fame career.
They’re the same tactics Evert would recommend to any opponent of top-seeded Serena Williams, as well, when the season’s second major gets underway Sunday in Paris.
In short: Coax Nadal and Williams to the net with drop shots (neither boasts an exceptional volley) and hit slices and short angles to disrupt their rhythm and take the punch out of their punishing groundstrokes.
“You’ve got to take them out of their power zone, right?” said Evert, who will provide commentary for ESPN. “I think you have to bring [them] in.”
Having a game plan is one thing. Having the guts and grit to stick with it against Nadal and Williams, two of the game’s hardest sluggers and fiercest competitors, is another thing entirely — particularly on clay.
Slower than hard courts or grass, clay-court tennis demands patience and fluid movement, including the timing and grace to slide to where the ball will be. It comes naturally to Nadal, who was weaned on the surface and seems to draw strength from it.
For Williams, like most Americans, playing on clay was an acquired skill. It remains her weakest surface, muting her booming first serve and giving opponents an extra split-second to gird for her blasts from the baseline. That’s largely why the French is the only major Williams hasn’t won more than once, her lone victory coming in 2002.
But Williams has been so dominant since reclaiming her No. 1 ranking in February, the surface hardly matters. She arrives in Paris on a 24-match winning streak, having claimed four consecutive titles — the last three on the clay of Charleston, S.C., Madrid and Rome.
“The level she’s at when she’s playing well, I don’t think anybody can beat her,” said McEnroe, 54, who will provide commentary for the Tennis Channel.
Nadal returned to competition in February, skipping the London Olympics, 2012 U.S. Open and this year’s Australian Open to give his left knee a chance to fully recover from another bout of tendinitis. Since then, he has posted a 36-2 record, winning six of the eight tournaments he has entered, including five clay-court titles.
At Roland Garros, the Spaniard’s record is 52-1. His only defeat came in 2009, to Sweden’s Robin Soderling, when he was fending off knee ailments and quietly grieving his parents’ divorce.