Rafael Nadal Is the King of Clay. Why Isn’t There a Queen?

Eleven years ago, Belgium’s Justine Henin won her fourth French Open championship in five years, beating Ana Ivanovic, of Serbia, in the final the way that Henin tended, in those days, to beat everyone in Paris: overwhelmingly. Henin had Fred Astaire footwork, a skimming slice backhand to go with a peerless one-hand drive, a wizardly touch with drop shots and volleys, and the fierce mental toughness required for the drawn-out points more common to the slowest of tennis surfaces. These are the weapons long understood to be necessary on the granular, shifting, unsteady coating of crushed red brick that we call clay, and that the French, so suggestively, call la terre battue, beaten ground. The summer of 2007 would turn out to be Henin’s last hurrah. She retired the following spring, at the age of twenty-five, ranked No. 1 in the world, but tired of the game and its grind, and weighed down by family issues. (She made a brief comeback attempt, in 2010.) Her exit has come to mark another end: since Henin, there has not been another dominant women’s clay-court champion. Clay-court tennis has traditionally had its specialists: the surface’s way of slowing down the ball opens up the game up to myriad technical and strategic approaches to be mastered—or not. Rafael Nadal is, and has for some time been, the indisputable king of clay. Why isn’t there a queen?

With the 2018 French Open set to begin, I got on the phone with the greatest of all the queens of clay, Chris Evert, and put the question to her. Evert won seven French Open singles titles; during one stretch, in the seventies, she won a hundred and twenty-five consecutive matches on clay. When we spoke, she was in Boca Raton, where she has a tennis academy, and was preparing to head to Paris to work, as she has for the past seven years, as an analyst at Grand Slam tournaments for ESPN. At sixty-three, she seems to have lost not a bit of enthusiasm for the game she helped transform and, in America, popularize. She said straightaway that she had no sage theory as to why there was no queen of clay today, then cheerily began wondering aloud.

“Oh, God . . . well, Rafa Nadal,” she began. “I mean, there’s no woman in tennis like him. No other man, either.” She paused. “O.K. So, for starters, let’s just say Nadal is, like, the outlier. He has the quickness to play so far behind the baseline and chase down balls. And he has that topspin.”

The topspin that Nadal lathers on the ball with his forehand does a number of things for his clay-court game, and Evert talked them through. It allows him to hit with blistering pace and still keep the ball on the court: the ball loops up and over the net, then down without sailing long. This “shaped ball” takes longer to come down and be returned than a flat shot does, and Nadal can use this time to establish the court position he wants. On clay, especially, Nadal’s heavy topspin (which produces, on average, more than three thousand rotations per minute) creates a bounce that sends the ball high up and angled speedily in whichever direction it’s heading. It’s hard, Evert noted, not to be pushed back by it—back so far that leaving return shots short becomes a constant liability. With its gyrating dip, it’s hard to volley, too. In the parlance of tennis coaches and insiders like Evert, heavy topspin wears down an opponent’s “shot tolerance.”

Nadal didn’t invent this shot; after spin-inducing polyester racquet strings came along, in the late nineties, Brazil’s Gustavo (Guga) Kuerten began using them, brushing the back of the ball violently upward with his forehand. (He won three French Opens.) But Nadal perfected it.

So why, I asked Evert, don’t women use it?

“Women for the most part can’t,” she said. Women, Evert told me, tend to struggle with the grip required—what’s called an extreme-western grip, with the palm essentially underneath the racquet. The follow-through on a heavy topspin shot is not over the shoulder but either across the body, like a windshield wiper, or steeply upward, and this, too, requires tremendous arm strength. “It’s the same with serving big: most women just don’t have the shoulder,” Evert said. “I mean, we’re different. We have hips for childbearing.” She laughed a little.

So, I suggested, we should just expect women with power-baseline games, built for hard courts, to continue to win French Opens, whether or not they have the particular skills associated with clay? Serena Williams has won twice in this decade; Maria Sharapova, too. Neither would be mistaken for a clay-court specialist. Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, with her flat strokes and attack game, won two years ago. Then, last year, Jelena Ostapenko, of Latvia, who was nineteen years old and had never won a title on the women’s tour, won the French Open by blasting nearly every ball she could put her racquet on as hard as she could, errors be damned. Her opponent in the final, Romania’s Simona Halep, is arguably the women’s player with the strengths best suited to clay; she’s a great scrambler and a discerning reader of her opponent’s patterns and weaknesses. Halep was up a set, and 3–0 in the second, but was, in the end, overpowered and undone by Ostapenko’s big-strike, high-risk, go-for-broke game.

Evert sighed. “Simona can be her own worst enemy—I mean, come on, just play within yourself!” She paused. “Back when I played, there were a couple of baseliners like me, relying on consistent groundstrokes, and there were the women who served and volleyed,” she said. “That was it. We didn’t have to contend with the power. It is hard to play defense again and again, point after point, against that power. You have to get these big girls on the run, move them from the center of the baseline.” She allowed how difficult it is to redirect the ball or hit drop shots from the backcourt—the kinds of shots that get opponents moving—when the ball is coming at you at eighty miles per hour, deep in the corner, off a forehand from the likes of Williams or Sharapova.

Is it possible that, in the not-too-distant future, there will be bigger players on the women’s tour who can move like the Halep-size players but hit hard and offensively once they reach the ball? Who can move and hit on the run the way that, say, Novak Djokovic does—or, rather, the way that Djokovic did a few years ago, when he often defeated Nadal on clay?

“I think that will happen,” Evert said. “The game is always evolving.”

“Maybe it’s that the clay is different now, too,” she continued, redirecting her thoughts a bit. “Not as slow and slippery. Not as thick or something. Martina”—Evert’s great rival and friend, Martina Navratilova, whom she dominated on clay—“says she’d like to play me on today’s clay! It’s like all the surfaces are more alike—the grass isn’t as fast, either. So you have these great players like Serena who play well on all surfaces. And Nadal, too, for that matter.”

Which is to say: once Rafa abdicates, there may be no king of clay, either.

Source link

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*