French Open 2018: How do you stop 'King of Clay' Rafael Nadal?


Spain’s Rafael Nadal won his 10th Roland Garros title in Paris last year
French Open 2018
Venue: Roland Garros, Paris Dates: 27 May-10 June
Coverage: Daily live radio and text commentaries on BBC Radio 5 live, the BBC Sport website and app.

The beauty about sport is we never know what might happen when we arrive at a stadium or turn on our television.

But one thing comes as close to sporting certainty as anything else we have seen over the past 13 years: Rafael Nadal winning the French Open.

“Some say beating Rafa over five sets on clay is the toughest thing in sport – not just tennis,” says seven-time Grand Slam singles champion John McEnroe. “I would agree with that.”

Since making his debut as a talented teenager in 2005, Nadal has won a record 10 singles titles at Roland Garros – no-one in the men’s game has managed to win as many at the same Grand Slam.

And few are backing anyone other than the 32-year-old Spaniard to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires again on Sunday, although he must first navigate Friday’s semi-final against fifth seed Juan Martin del Potro (which you can follow via live text and BBC Radio 5 live sports extra commentary).

What makes the man nicknamed the ‘King of Clay’ almost unstoppable on the red dirt? And how do you beat him over five sets in Paris?

We’ve asked former Grand Slam champions McEnroe, Michael Chang and Pat Cash, along with analysts and journalists, to tell us.

His vicious forehand and movement

Nadal’s run of winning 37 successive sets at Roland Garros stretched back to 2015

Nadal won 37 sets in a row at Roland Garros, surpassing his own previous best streak of 32, before Diego Schwartzman stopped him moving closer to Bjorn Borg’s all-time record of 41 by winning the opener in their quarter-final.

Borg won six French Open titles between 1974 and 1981, setting a record that stood until it was surpassed by Nadal in 2012.

“I was around the era where I thought I was watching the greatest – I was at the time – Borg. Nadal eclipses him,” said McEnroe, a Roland Garros finalist in 1984.

Nadal’s main weapon is that vicious, lasso-style forehand which has become his trademark.

Nobody has hit a higher percentage of forehand winners than the Spaniard over the past fortnight, with 12% of his points coming through this shot.

That, added to his sharp movement and supreme athleticism, is what makes Nadal great, according to Chang.

“He has the uncanny ability of being able to hit a lot of forehands and move very well on clay,” the American, who won Roland Garros as a 17-year-old in 1989, told BBC Sport.

“He knows how to manipulate the angles to build to get people out of position.

“He is very aggressive, although patient when he needs to be, but for the most part if the shot is there he is taking it and going for it.

“He’s the one manipulating, making you move and putting you in awkward positions to the point where he has easy cutaways.”

Being a leftie

Nadal is a left-handed player which, in conjunction with his other attributes, is a key part to his success, according to Chang.

“If Rafa was a right-handed player I don’t think his game would be quite as effective,” said the former world number two.

“Being a leftie means that everything spins the other way.

“The strong forehands always come into a right-handed player’s backhand, hooking him off the court, and the inside out coming back the other way, it is tough to cover.”

Second serve

In tennis, the second serve is the ultimate safety net, allowing players to go all out on their first serve, knowing they have a back-up if they miss.

Second serves are slower and weaker than first serves, and in men’s tennis, these points are where the real contest is waged, says tennis journalist Amy Lundy.

Lundy has produced an in-depth analysis of Nadal’s second service game