Another clay season is here, which means that in a little over a month, almost the entire tennis world, if not the entire tennis world, expects to see Rafael Nadal hoisting the winner's trophy at Roland Garros for an 11th time.
And given Nadal's form in both the clay court Davis Cup matches he played, and in Monte Carlo, despite being fresh off from an injury, Nadal looks as dominant as he's ever been. In his Davis Cup and Monte Carlo matches, Nadal has won every set he has played. And not only that, but in every set he has played, the opponent has not gotten five games in a set, let alone winning a set.
And let's not pretend like Nadal's opponents have even been getting to four games in a set very often! Nadal played ten sets in Monte Carlo. Of those ten sets, only one set, the first set against Grigor Dimitrov in the Monte Carlo Semifinals, has had Nadal's opponent winning four games! However, Nadal's opponents have won zero or one game in a set three times! So Nadal has triple the number of sets where his opponents have won zero or one game compared to when his opponents have won four games (or more)! This includes Dominic Thiem, who beat Nadal in Rome last year, getting only two games in his match with Nadal, and Kei Nishikori winning only five games in the Final against Nadal.
So, how do you beat Nadal playing at this level on clay?
In Nadal's career, only two players have beaten Nadal at the French Open. In probably the biggest shocker in tennis history, Robin Soderling beat Rafa in four sets at the French Open in the 2009 Round of 16. And then, in 2015, Djokovic beat Nadal in straight sets in the Quarterfinals. But, Soderling is out of the game, and its unrealistic to believe that Djokovic, who has been injured for a lot of the previous year, to go onto Nadal's turf and beat the 10-time Roland Garros champion in a best-of-five match.
So, this leads me to my theory. I don't think a baseliner and/or a clay courter can beat Rafa at the French Open this year. For instance, Nishikori and Thiem are all talented baseliners with awesome groundstrokes and can put all kinds of pressure on opponents. Nishikori was up huge on Nadal in Madrid before leaving with injury, so while he might have the game to beat Nadal on clay, not only does his game have to be peaking and Nadal's game extremely mediocre, but he also has to navigate the best-of-five format. When Nishikori has played Nadal best-of-five, he has lost every set he has played, going 0-9 in sets in the three major meetings, which includes Nishikori winning eight games in three sets at the 2013 French Open.
Thiem beat Rafa in best-of-three at Rome last year, so he can beat Nadal on clay. But look what happened not only this year in Monte Carlo, when Rafa was not fatigued as he surely must have been in Rome this year, but also last year in his matchup with Nadal in the French Open Semifinals. In three sets, Thiem managed to win seven games, and the match included a 6-0 third set win for Nadal. These baseliners can give Nadal a fight, and possibly even beat him, in best-of-three, but playing on Nadal's turf in best-of-five is tough.
David Ferrer, a Roland Garros finalist and one of the best clay courter of this generation, has won one set in four matches against Nadal at the French Open. Even Roger Federer, who has won a record 20 majors, won only four sets in five matches at the French Open against Nadal.
So, my theory is that the best chance to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, a player needs to do a few things, which are MUCH easier said than done. First, a player must have a huge serve. As Nishikori learned yesterday against Nadal, not having a big serve to win a bunch of free points against Nadal on clay will just lead to absolutely brutal baseline rallies where a player might be able to sustain their game early, as Nishikori did have an early break *2-1 in the first set, but by the end of the match, the player is absolutely gassed by constantly chasing down Nadal's heavy-topspin shots. Again, look at Nishikori yesterday, by the end of the match, he had lost six of the final seven games. But, Nishikori was actually rare in the fact that he got a good start, as every other opponent in Monte Carlo last week was broken in their first service game of the match.
The player must not allow Nadal to establish a rhythm from the baseline. I think a big server with an aggressive baseline game has an advantage in this area too. Rallying with Nadal a lot gives him the rhythm he needs to feel comfortable and work the player around the court, so a player must absolutely crush any ball that is less short, as Thiem did in Rome last year and Soderling did at Roland Garros, because otherwise, Nadal will probably almost every rally ball back, creating a rhythm for himself. And once he has that rhythm, then he is nearly impossible to beat because of the high margins he creates for himself through his groundstrokes. This means that it is ok to go huge and miss groundstrokes! Even if a player misses some groundstrokes, its still creating the start-and-stop culture of the match needed to allow a player to beat Rafa.
So, as I've said, players must have a big serve allowing them to win and the player must not allow to establish a baseline rhythm. Part of the deal with this lack of baseline rhythm and big serving is for a player to come to the net as much as the player can. This, again, will make Nadal have to hit passing shots, and along with the big serving and with the player going for every groundstroke, will make Rafa feel uncomfortable. And that's the key, make Nadal uncomfortable and play your game, instead of playing his game. Of course, though, missing every groundstroke is also a losing strategy, so the player has to at least sometimes be making these high-risk groundstrokes.
Throughout the parts of Nadal's Monte Carlo matches that I watched, opponents were glued to the baseline playing Nadal's game, by coming to the net, hitting monster serves, and emphasizing short rallies, the right player can make Nadal extremely uncomfortable and potentially cause a huge upset at Roland Garros. I kind of think of a player doing this to be similar to what Mischa Zverev did to Andy Murray at the Australian Open in 2017. Murray wasn't able to play his game, and he ultimately lost in a shocker.
Obviously, though, belief is key, and if a player doesn't have belief that the player can challenge, and ultimately beat Nadal on clay, then when the player start to gain momentum in a match against clay, then whoever is playing Nadal will crumble. So, I think that having beaten, or coming close to beating Nadal on clay before will ultimately be necessary to beat Nadal at Roland Garros. I think that this belief is partially why Djokovic beat Nadal in the 2015 French Open is because of his five setter in the 2013 Roland Garros semifinal and how he took the first set against Rafa in the 2014 French Open Final. On a smaller scale, I also think that the reason why Thiem beat Nadal in Rome last year, aside from Nadal's fatigue, is because Thiem played Rafa so tight in the first set last year of the Madrid Final, ultimately losing that set 7-6(8). Thiem finally knew that he could beat Nadal on clay.
So, you might be asking, who has all of these traits? And one guy comes to my mind: John Isner. Yes, he isn't someone who immediately comes to mind when you think of a clay courter who can challenge Nadal, but if there is going to be someone who can beat Nadal, it's either Isner, or someone who plays very similar to Isner. But, I think it's Isner who can beat Nadal for a few reasons, all which are demonstrated in Isner's five-set loss to Nadal in the 2011 French Open First Round. And while Isner did lose in five sets, he was two points away from 5-5 in the fifth, where anything would have been possible.
In that video you will see exactly the things I am talking about. Isner came to the net as often as possible. This took away Nadal rhythm and forced him to hit passing shots, which he can obviously do, but given the power of the balls coming to him and the reach of Isner, made life extremely difficult for Rafa. You can also see in the video that Isner is just whacking his groundstrokes. Whenever John can, he is hitting absolutely huge groundstrokes and insists on playing his game, as opposed to playing Nadal's game.
The serving from John is absolutely huge. As mentioned before, something we saw in Monte Carlo last week is that opponents often got off to terrible starts against Nadal. By having a big serve like John's, it allowed him to stay in sets and hope the pressure got to Nadal. Both sets that went to tiebreakers in that match were won by Isner. If Nadal's opponent can use their huge serve to keep the player in a set, both when on serve and when down one break, then potentially Nadal will falter and that player can take advantage, in this case Isner.
This was even true in the fifth set, when Isner used his power game to just stick around the set, and had an opportunity at *5-4 to potentially break back when at 30-30. Sure, Nadal was getting a lot of Isner's serves back, but when he did, often, John was in a great position in the point.
John's groundstrokes need to be on-point, as they were in that match, and as they were in Miami, where he recently won his first Masters 1000 title over Alexander Zverev in the Final. John's groundstrokes were at a very high level throughout that tournament and when his game is working like it was in Miami, he is extremely difficult to beat. John's ground game can be lifted to a higher level than other big servers, such as Ivo Karlovic, which is why I think Isner has a much better shot than Karlovic to beat Nadal at the French Open: John's groundstrokes just have a higher ceiling than Karlovic's groundstrokes.
Now, of course I am not saying that John will assuredly beat Rafa should they matchup this year at the French Open. That would be incredibly ridiculous of me to say, and quite demeaning given Nadal's sensational pedigree. Isner did lose to Stevie Johnson in a third set tiebreaker in Houston last week in his second match, although that was his first clay court tournament of the year and given Isner's plentiful tiebreakers, sometimes losing close matches like that is to be expected. And I mean, Nadal is 7-0 against Isner, including a 3-0 record on clay. But, in two of three of John's matches with Rafa on clay, they did go the distance, including a three setter in Monte Carlo which included Nadal winning a very close first set tiebreaker. And Isner did reach the Semifinals of Rome last year, a tournament who's conditions are much like the French Open.
I am just talking about who has the best shot to beat Nadal at Roland Garros this year. And unless you have a fully healthy, all-time great with a two-handed backhand (i.e. the Djokovic of 2015), then it's extremely improbably for a baseline-oriented player to beat Nadal. That's why I give Isner the best shot. And Isner should have a lot of belief, given how close he was to beating Nadal at Roland Garros in 2011, and how recently won his first Masters 1000 event.
So, all I'm saying is to not dismiss John's chances, not to fall into the belief that the players who can beat Nadal have to be spectacular for years. All it takes is one match for a player like Isner to record an upset that rivals Nadal's loss to Robin Soderling.
I believe that John Isner is the biggest threat to beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open.