With his recent defeat in the Rome Masters final a few weeks ago, I got thinking, what is Roger Federer's problem on clay? Does he even have one? After all out of his 76 career titles only 10 have been on the red stuff. Why is that after reaching five finals at Roland Garros he has just a solitary French Open title to his name? Is it possible that the greatest player of all time is a bad clay courter? Even as I typed that last question my keyboard blushed with embarrassment at it's absurdity.
There is only one major problem Roger Federer has had in his career. Rafael Nadal. It really is as simple as that. The head to head between the two weighs heavily in favor of the Spaniard largely due to his supremacy on clay. 20-10 overall, but 13 of those 20 have been on Nadal's favourite surface.
So why is is that Roger Federer finds it difficult to beat Rafa on the slower court?
Nadal is the epitome of the modern tennis player whereas Federer, in complete contrast, is the elegant classic player; the double handed backhand versus the old style single hander, physical brute force versus an effortless demeanor, emotion versus ice cool calm. But the distinguishing factor is Nadal's forehand and it has wreaked havoc on many clay courts over the years.
The majority of players (except perhaps Novak Djokovic) just cannot cope with the enormous amount of topspin Rafa manages to produce with this shot. Over 3000 rotations per minute has the ball bouncing off the clay above most opponents shoulder height, which makes it difficult to hit back without it falling woefully short and coming back with interest.
Add to that the fact that a single handed backhand is weaker than a double handed one and it proves to be an even more potent weapon than usual. Roger, however strange it may sound, is one of the few that has dealt with it particularly well, but consistently over the course of a five set match it breaks down and is not a shot that can relentlessly hit back such a forehand. The lower bouncing hard and grass courts find Rafa's forehand to be less effective, bouncing just at the perfect height for Roger, resulting in more success for the latter.
Tactically Rafa has it spot on and he knows exactly what to do when he plays Roger. In his autobiography he has admitted that he likes to play to Roger's backhand most of the time and we see it too. He will always serve there and when the return falls short he'll bury a winner in the open court. Then he does it again and again and again and not even the great Roger Federer can cope with the barrage over the course of two or three hours. The fact is that Rafa's game is perfectly suited to clay and it shows in his results having notched up an unprecedented eight French Open titles, losing just one match in Paris since in eight years.
Picture having the Collage of Rafa Nadal's 8 French Open Roland Garros title updated after his 2013 title
An unbelievable record by anyone's standards. All the above factors have contributed to Rafa's domination over Roger and has in turn led to a vital psychological advantage. Federer seems nervous when he plays Nadal, missing shots he would normally make in his sleep and it's evident in his body language.
Having said all of this I go back to the question I began with.
Is Roger Federer a bad clay court player?
Absolutely and unequivocally NO.
Had it not been for a certain Spaniard Federer would have had in excess of twenty Grand Slams today (having lost four French Open finals to Rafa) and many more ATP titles to his credit.
So, in reality, Federer is an exceptional clay court player of his generation & I will rate him as the second best clay court player of his generation.
Reasons & some of Roger Federer's major accomplishments on Clay ----
(i) Last 9 years record at Roland Garros --- 5 French Open finals (1 Title in 2009), 2 Semi-finals, 2 Quarter-finals.
(ii) 58 wins at Roland Garros (Jointly tied at #2 in most number of wins at French Open)
(iii) Till now, out of 242 natches played on clay, Roger Federer has won 187 and lost 55 & has a 79% success record on clay court.
(iv) Reached finals of 23 Clay Court tournaments, winning 10 out of those (with two wins vs Rafa Nadal on clay).
So what exactly is Roger Federer's problem on clay?
Two words. Rafael Nadal.
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