Rafael Nadal seems unbeatable on clay this season. He has yet to drop a set on the red dirt this year. In fact, he’s not even really come close. Nadal is playing in 2018 like it’s 2008 again. And with Djokovic still not up to top form and no Federer this season, the options of who can beat Nadal are few and far between. That’s why I think, that if someone is going to be able to upset the Spaniard, it might be someone you wouldn’t otherwise think of. With the way Nadal is playing right now, there is only one player in the world who can beat him.
Why Isner can beat Nadal
If this statement seems outrageous to you, that’s because at first glance it absolutely is. Isner is not one of the best clay-courters in the world. Not even close. Dominic Thiem, Juan Martin del Potro, Pablo Carreno Busta, and several others are far superior to Isner on clay. However, Isner has one thing right now that no one else in the world has. He poses a matchup problem for Nadal.
Nadal has always had his struggles with big servers. Of any players in the world, the guys who can blast huge serves and keep him out of rhythm are the ones that have had disproportionate success. Isner has one of the biggest serves in the world. On top of that, though, the tall American has enough variety in his serves to never let Nadal get comfortable. Isner’s kick serve can get up so high that it’s unreturnable. And if Nadal will choose to stand close enough in to get to the ball before it gets high, the American can blast the ball by him at 140 miles per hour.
Also, Isner has some advantages off the baseline that no one else in the world has, especially against Nadal. A large part of what makes Nadal so unbeatable on clay is the huge amounts of topspin he generates. For most players, that means that the ball will be well outside their hitting zone unless they can take it early. For the 6’9″ American, though, that’s just not true. Isner can blast huge forehands off balls that most other players can’t reach. On clay, that’s a huge advantage. He has never really been able to put it all together, but the potential is there.
The current World #9 has had his struggles on clay. It is not his best surface, even though it could be. Part of the reason is that throughout his career, Isner has always struggled when not competing on American soil. Still, it would be neglectful not to point out that Isner does not move well on clay. He is quick, but the American has never really learned to move naturally on the red surface. On the other hand, that doesn’t really matter. Being 6’9″ means that he can get to balls in just a few strides, so the sometimes slight awkwardness of his movement shouldn’t cause too much trouble.
First of all, I want to be very clear. I am not saying that Isner will beat Nadal on clay. I’m not even saying that he should be anywhere close to a favorite. What I am saying is that right now, there is just about no one who can beat Nadal on clay. If there is one player with the biggest chance, it’s John Isner–but that chance is still tiny.
Back in 2011, Isner had been a Top 20 player, but fallen out of the French Open seeds. He drew Rafael Nadal in the first round and took the Spaniard to five sets. To this day, Isner remains one of the only three people to ever take two sets off Nadal at the French Open. (The other two are Robin Soderling, who defeated Nadal in 2009, and Novak Djokovic, who forced a fifth set in 2013 and defeated Nadal in 2015.) The potential has always been there, if only he can put it all together.
There will never be a better chance in the American’s career for him to make deep runs. Isner’s confidence has to be as high as it has ever been, coming off his first career Masters 1000 title in Miami. The Masters tournaments in Madrid and Rome will give the American a chance to get used to playing in Europe, but if he can’t do anything with where his game is now, he probably never will.
Of course, that is the problem with all of this. In a one-on-one situation on clay, Isner has a better chance against Nadal than anyone else does–especially over five sets. But for the American to even reach that stage will take something that he has not yet showed us he is capable of. Isner will need to be motivated and play his best just to get a chance at facing Nadal. If he can, though, we might finally see Nadal face a challenge on his favorite surface.
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