Let’s get this out of the way: Rafael Nadal is a beast. He’s unthinkably and historically superior to the field on clay. So what I’m about to say isn’t intended to take anything away from him.
The other guys are capitulating too readily. I’m not the first to express this view. I’m told that Mats Wilander was saying the same in his commentary at Roland Garros this week, and others have said it before. But it’s not just a whiny gripe. There’s some logic behind it.
Every generation has a male baseline warrior who plays that game better than everyone else. He just beats you into the ground, especially over best-of-five sets. Nadal is obviously this generation’s baseline master and the greatest backcourt player of all time. (Though for a few years Djokovic took the title from Nadal or shared it with him). Last generation it was Andre Agassi, at least the years he was at his peak. Before that Ivan Lendl. And before that Bjorn Borg. The point is that if you’re a baseline basher — even an excellent one — and that’s your game, you’re going to lose to Nadal/Agassi/Lendl/Borg. You’re playing the same game they do but you just do it a tad worse. So you’re going to lose 90 percent of the time.
A couple of examples: Peak Agassi, which I would define as 1994-95 and 1999-2003. He was certainly beatable back then, but not really if you were playing the same style he was. Pete Sampras could take him out because he rushed the net. Even Mark Philippoussis was able to beat Agassi at Wimbledon in 2003 because he played an attacking game. Of course, Sampras and Philippoussis (or Richard Krajicek or Goran Ivanisevic) didn’t have to go out of their comfort zones to attack. That was their game. Today the closest thing we have is Mischa Zverev, but he’s just not good enough. Agassi had to contend with Becker, Edberg and Rafter, in addition to the players I’ve mentioned above. There were a lot more net-rushing players a couple of decades ago, and they were good at it.
In the late 1970s, Guillermo Vilas was an amazing baseliner, an all-time great. But Borg was a bit better at the exact same game. Not a lot. But being a little bit better at the same thing translates into one of the two guys winning all the time. At one point during his 1976-80 peak, Borg won 11 straight matches against Vilas, who himself was beating every other baseliner. (I’m not counting Jimmy Connors, who came to the net enough to give both Borg and Vilas more complicated matchup issues.) Borg was brutal against players who had similar games. He was 16-0 against Harold Solomon, 13-0 against Eddie Dibbs and 6-1 against Wotjek Fibak. Everything they did he could do better. There was little point to even playing those matches.
I once saw a comment from Pete Sampras that I will very loosely paraphrase. Here’s the gist: Sampras was saying that when he played the Spaniards (think Bruguera, Moya, Corretja, Mantilla and Costa), even if it wasn’t on clay, he would try to prevent any point from going more than about eight shots, especially early in the match. It wasn’t necessarily about that particular point.
His view was that these guys would get in a groove the more they hit the ball, both within a particular rally and in the match more broadly. They hit the 12th ball of a rally better than the eighth. And then the next point they play even better, because they’re getting grooved. And a half-hour later they’re even stronger. It’s like they get better with practice, and you give them practice by letting them hit lots of balls. So when a rally got to about the sixth or eighth shot, Sampras would do something to try to end it — go for an ultra-aggressive groundstroke or chip and charge. In other words, he could feel the narrative of the match getting away from him if the individual points went on for too long. For Sampras, it was about controlling that narrative, the rhythm of the match. Make the points reflect the kind of match you want. It appears that not enough players today think in those terms. Definitely not against Nadal.
There are basically three ways to ensure that points don’t go on for very long: Go for a winner; go to the net; hit a drop shot to bring your opponent to the net. That’s what Nadal’s opponents should be doing once the point gets about six shots in. Does that mean they would beat him on clay if they did that? No. But it increases the chances, at least slightly. I mean, if a guy plays his normal baseline game against Nadal on clay, there’s about a 98 percent chance he loses. That’s Nadal’s winning percentage at Roland Garros. So if there’s a 98 percent chance you’re going to lose, why play your normal baseline game? We don’t know what Nadal’s winning percentage would be if players tried different tactics, because the sample size of people actually doing that is minuscule. But I would guess it would have to go down to at least 85 percent. I know it can’t get much higher than 98 percent.
Today we have very few top players with big, attacking games. Federer is about as aggressive as we have in the top echelon, but his is more of a surgical strike rather than a big game. And yeah, he’s not playing the French Open. Not only do we not have the equivalent of a Philippoussis-Krajicek-Ivanisevic type, but we also don’t have a Becker or a Rafter or an Edberg — great players who liked coming into the net. Dominic Thiem may or may not charge the net in Sunday’s final, but if he does, he’ll be hoping for the best up there. He’d rather not have to do it. On the subtler side, I’ve seen glimpses of players trying a drop-shot strategy against Nadal, with some success. In Barcelona this year, Martin Klizan was using the dropper a lot against Nadal in the second set, and served at 5-4 before losing. The drop shot has worked very well for Djokovic at times against Nadal, as long ago as the first time he beat him, on a hard court in Miami in 2007.
Catherine Whitaker on The Tennis Podcast this week mentioned that she had talked to Maximilian Marterer before his fourth-round match against Nadal, and Marterer essentially said he would play his normal baseline game and hope for the best. Whitaker’s response was much like mine: Seriously? That’s not going to work.
I can sort of, maybe, a little, understand why the players shy away from trying a different strategy. For one, most of them are pretty lame at the net. They don’t want to be there, and it shows. Two, it gets demoralizing to watch passing shots fly by you. When that happens, players shy away from the net. On drop-shotting, players may fear, perhaps legitimately, that if they overuse the drop shot Nadal will start reading it and pounce all over them. And finally, since Nadal crushes everyone on clay, playing your normal game and losing 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (as Marterer the martyr did), seems like a dignified result. If you try to play a game you’re not comfortable with, you could lose by an even worse score and feel foolish.
Still, these guys need to break out of their comfort zone and do something different. Empty the toolbox. Throw the kitchen sink at him. Stare him down after doing a kamikaze rush to the net. Get him out of his comfort zone. You might lose anyway, but at least you’ve actually given it an honest try. Otherwise it’s just capitulation disguised as a dignified loss.