Rafa vs. the Spanish Armada

Rafael Nadal wrapped up his record 7th French Open title a few weeks ago, and in watching a good chunk of the European clay swing leading up to tournament, I decided it was finally time to dig into something I’ve been wondering about for some time now.

Everyone knows that the Spanish players are some of the best in the business when it comes to competing on clay.  According to the ATP’s overall reliability index, three of the top five best claycourt players this season are Spanish – R. Nadal (#1), D. Ferrer (#2), and N. Almagro (#5) – and Fernando Verdasco isn’t far behind at #9.  No wonder, then, that they’ve been winning nearly all of the claycourt titles this year: 9 of 15 tournaments, including the French Open.  Certainly tough customers on the dirt.

Among these guys, Nadal is far and away the best on clay, and most people (myself included) consider him the greatest claycourt player of all time.  I usually tune in whenever Nadal is playing a fellow Spaniard on clay, mostly because I always think they will be better match-ups given the Spanish pedigree on this particular surface.  These matches, however, almost always end up disappointing because Nadal’s compatriots usually seem to hit a mental roadblock and crumble in the face of his overpowering countryman.

I guess in one sense, the result itself is not surprising given that Nadal owns everybody on clay, whether Spanish or not.  What’s been interesting for me, though, is how the Spanish seem to break down mentally against Nadal on clay more than most other guys.  Given their strength on the surface, I’d expect them generally to compete better, and while better Spanish guys like Ferrer have certainly pushed Nadal to a 7-5 or 7-6 set, the end result is mostly the same, and the struggle throughout somehow feels more futile.

So, I’m curious to know if we can observe, by any measure, the psychological effect of being a Spaniard and playing someone who (a) is a fellow countryman and friend but who (b) is also very likely “totally in your head” when it comes to competing on clay because you’ve practiced more with him, competed with him on clay in Davis Cup competition, and, more than others, been first-row witness to his domination on the surface.

To get an angle on this, I looked at the break-point statistics – both when serving and when returning – for all of the claycourt matches Nadal has played over the last six years.  I broke them down by season and, within each season, by type of opponent (Spanish or non-Spanish).  Here’s what that looks like:


There’s nothing particularly shocking about the first two categories of data, “Total Clay Matches Played” and “Total Win %,” although it’s interesting to see the drop-off in total clay matches played after 2007, when Nadal dropped Stuttgart, the clay tournament he traditionally played after Wimbledon, from his schedule.  This coincides neatly with the period from 2006-2011 during which Nadal was a constant presence in the Wimbledon title match (2009 being the notable exception since he did not play Wimbledon that year), so it’s fitting that he’d skip the tournament immediately after Wimbledon to allow for recovery.  As he gets older, I wouldn’t expect him to add Stuttgart back regardless of his success at Wimbledon.

The third category, “Avg. Break Point Conversion %,”also seems pretty straightforward.  Nadal is remarkably consistent at converting around 53% of his break-point opportunities on clay, though in the past five years, he’s converted anywhere from 1-12% fewer of those chances against fellow Spaniards.  In other words, Nadal has a harder time breaking serve against fellow Spaniards than against non-Spaniards.  This doesn’t really surprise me when you consider (a) how far back Nadal stands to return serve on a clay court (almost in the bleachers) and (b) the number of short balls this causes him to offer up on his return.  A short return is a gift for any server, and good claycourt players in particular should be able to capitalize on this or otherwise use their better movement on the surface to squeak out a few more saved break points than others.

The last category, “Avg. Break Point Save %,” is the most interesting to me.  With the exception of 2007 (where the percentage of points saved versus Spaniards was nearly identical to that of non-Spaniards) and 2010 (when Nadal won 100% of his clay matches anyway), Nadal has typically saved on average between 3-7% more break-point chances against Spaniards than against non-Spaniards.  Intuition, I think, would suggest that just as the better claycourt players are slightly above average at saving their own break points against Nadal, so too should they be slightly above average in converting their own break-point chances when playing him.  Interestingly, though, Nadal saves more break points on his own serve in these matches than when playing non-Spaniards.  Put the other way, despite their clay prowess, the Spanish, on average, are worse at breaking Nadal on clay than the rest of the world is.  What’s more, 2012 saw the greatest disparity between how often Nadal was getting broken by non-Spaniards (~ 29% of chances) and how often the Spaniards were breaking him (~ 19% of chances).

What’s to account for this?  Does Nadal step up his game when playing fellow Spaniards?  Possibly, but my sense is that the guy gives his 100% regardless of whom he’s playing.  I think what’s more likely is that Nadal knows the games of his countrymen better than most, and while that’s certainly helpful for him from a tactical perspective, it’s probably even more detrimental to them because they see a near-impossible task at hand.  If the belief isn’t there from the moment you step on the court, you will not be successful.

A guy like Robin Soderling, who gave Nadal his only career French Open loss in the fourth round in 2009, brought a game plan to that match that was relatively unorthodox given the surface: hit through Nadal and serve him off the court.  That’s not how most players approach claycourt tennis, and it’s certainly not how most of the Spaniards play on clay.  Nadal was caught off-guard by the tactics in that match (and, to be fair, Soderling played one of the better matches of his career that day), but the numbers seem to suggest that Nadal might actually be most comfortable playing his closest buddies on the dirt.  All I can say is that if I were Nadal, I’d certainly be happier with a slightly below average rate of converting break points (he still converts nearly 50% of chances against Spaniards…) if it meant I’d get broken less.

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