Can anyone stop Rafael Nadal on clay?

April 10, 2018

Having missed several weeks with injury, Rafael Nadal has been back on court in triumphant style, winning on his return against Philipp Kohlschreiber as Spain beat Germany to advance to the Davis Cup semi-finals. 

David Ferrer then won the deciding match against Kohlschreiber to see Spain through in Valencia, and they will now play France in the semi-finals.

France will be at home and it will not be hard to guess what kind of venue will be chosen. If the clash takes place in Paris, the hosts will opt for the hard courts of Palais Omnisports in Bercy - where the Rolex Paris Masters takes place each November - rather than the clay of Roland Garros. 

Despite playing for the first time since February, Nadal still cruised to straight sets wins on the clay over Kohlschreiber and Alex Zverev, suggesting that normal service will be resumed as the tour switches from hard courts to red dirt.

Like last year, Roger Federer will be skipping the clay season to focus on preparations for the Championships, Wimbledon. Nadal will also be thinking ahead to grass courts in London - starting with the Fever-Tree Championships at the Queen's Club

With the number one ranking at stake, the clay and grass seasons will be important for Federer and Nadal alike. Despite not playing in Miami or Indian Wells, the Spaniard recently regained the top spot as Federer was unable to match his performances of last year, following an early Miami exit. Now, with the Swiss legend having no clay court points to defend, Nadal's place back at the top will only be maintained until the grass court season if he can match last year's relentless spring form. 

The question is, can anyone stop him? With Federer out of the equation, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka convalescing and all manner of questions over Novak Djokovic, the field seems wide open for Nadal. 

Indeed, the above-mentioned group includes all the other French Open finalists since 2010 bar Ferrer, who lost in 2013 to Nadal and is now 36. Notwithstanding his heroics in Valencia, Ferrer is now ranked 33rd in the world, below not just Nadal but fellow compatriots Feliciano Lopez, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Roberto Bautista Agut and Pablo Carreno Busta. 

If ever there was a time for promising youngsters to come through, this is it. Zverev was unable to make much impact on Nadal in Valencia, and the youngster to watch in the clay court season could be Dominic Thiem.

Although the Austrian lost to Nadal in the finals in Barcelona and Madrid last year, he did inflict the Mallorcan's sole defeat on clay at the Rome Masters. Moreover, many good judges expect that Thiem will be a future French Open champion. The question is, does he have to wait for Nadal to fade first? 

Juan Martin del Potro may be the other most likely candidate. His fine form to date this year has included the Acapulco and Indian wells titles, as well as a run of 15 straight wins. 

Against that, the Argentinean has not won a clay court tournament since 2012 and his run to the quarter finals of the Rome Masters was his only notable performance on the surface last year. 

For all these reasons, Nadal should be expected to sweep all before him again on clay. When he walks out on court at the Queen's Club in June, it will be highly surprising if he does not do so with 17 Grand Slam titles to his name. 

Image: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images from Keith Prowse subscription

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