Rafael Nadal is often referred to as the King of Clay. Having won a current total of 46 titles on the red dirt including nine French Open titles and 19 Masters 1000 clay titles. The Spaniard is the only person to win the French Open nine times. His success on dirt over the years has deservedly earned him the title.
However, after injuries, and a general decline, 2015 was a year when his supremacy on the surface was finally called into question. Nadal was defending champion at Rio Open in 2015, and managed to reach the Semi Final. Here he suffered his first ever defeat to Fabio Fognini. Nadal won the first set and was a break up in the second, before the Italian came through to take the win.
Is Nadal Still The King Of Clay?
The Argentine Open was a better tournament for the Spaniard, and he reached the final of the ATP 250 event without dropping a set. This continued in the final as he defeated Juan Monaco in straight sets to claim his first title of 2015 and his 46th on the clay. From here the clay events shifted to the European circuit in the Spring.
Starting with the Monte-Carlo Masters Nadal had a straight forward first match in the second round – he’d received a bye in the first round. In round three things started to get tougher for Rafa, as first John Isner and then David Ferrer took him to three tight sets before the Spaniard overcame them and booked a semi final spot. The win over Ferrer was the first defeat of a top 10 player since the French Open the previous year. The Semi final was where he ran into Novak Djokovic, and the Serbian defeated Nadal in straight sets.
In the Barcelona Open, the Spaniard received a first round bye and dispatched his round two opponent in straight sets. However, the next round saw him yet again face Fognini who yet again defeated the Spaniard in straight sets. This defeat enabled the Italian to join a very elite group of men who have beaten Nadal more than once on clay, there are only four others to have achieved this. Fognini also joined Djokovic as the only other play to beat the Spaniard twice in a row on clay in the same year.
The Madrid Open saw Nadal score straight set wins over everyone to reach the final. Wins over Steve Johnson, Simone Bolelli, Grigor Dimitrov & Tomas Berdych saw the Spaniard in the final of a Clay Masters again. However, here he ran into Andy Murray who had been growing in confidence on the red stuff. Only a week before Murray had won his first ever title on clay, and had made the final in Madrid to be up against the King of Clay. Murray defeated the Spaniard in straight sets, which was a surprise to everyone and gave Murray his second clay title in the same year.
At the Italian Open, Nadal dominated his second round match (again, the Spaniard had received a bye in the first round). Taking on the big serving John Isner in round three Nadal had little problem in securing a straight set win to move to the quarter finals. Here he found himself against Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss beat Nadal in straight sets, even though Nadal had been leading the first set tiebreaker 6-2. This defeat meant that this was the first time since 2004 when the Spaniard had not won a European clay title before the French Open.
At the French Open Nadal only dropped on set en route to the quarter finals. Now, because his ranking had dropped him outside the top five, this meant he would meet the top seeds earlier than normal. The quarter finals saw him up against Djokovic again and again the Serbian defeated Nadal. The Spaniard ranking dropped to 10, his lowest point since April 2005.
Moving to the 2016 season and after missing the end of the season due to an operation and appendicitis, Nadal is trying to gain wins and confidence. Starting well in Argentina, Nadal reached the semi final defeating the opponents in straight sets. Once in the semi final he faced the young gun Dominic Thiem who defeated Nadal in three sets, this was a match that everyone stated the Spaniard should have won.
In the 2016 Rio Open Nadal once again scored straight set wins over his opponents to reach the quarter finals. The Spaniard received a walkover into the semi when his opponent withdrew due to a shoulder injury. This put Nadal in the semi final and a match against Pablo Cuevas. The Uruguayan is ranked 40 places lower than the Spaniard, and on paper this was going to be a stroll for Nadal, especially as the Spaniard had won their previous two meetings. However, Cuevas surprised everyone and defeated Nadal in three sets. The Spaniard took the first set on the tiebreak, but Cuevas fought back to dominate the second set tiebreak. Eventually the Uruguayan broke the Nadal serve and took the match 6-4.
Despite all this, with his record as it stands Nadal is still referred to as the King of Clay. Until Nadal is beaten in the final of the French Open, where he holds a 9-0 record in the final, he is likely to retain this title.