Rafael Nadal Is Not An All-Time Great On Hard Courts

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Rafael Nadal

Earlier today, I read one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen related to tennis. Someone, in fact a huge sports journalist, claimed that if you took away clay from Rafael Nadal he’s still an “all-time great;” take away grass from Roger Federer and he’s “still a legend;” but have Novak Djokovic never play on a hardcourt and he’s merely “a five-time Grand Slam champ.”

Although there’s so much wrong with what I read it got me thinking: What if you really do take away clay from Rafael Nadal? is there really still an all-time great left? Off clay he has six Slams, two being on the grass at Wimbledon.

Novak Djokovic now has four wins at Wimbledon given his triumph last month and Roger Federer has the record at an incredible eight. Since the grass season only being for one month a year, I’ll ignore the surface completely just to be kind to the Nadal. What I will be looking at however, is showing just how overrated the Spaniard is on hard courts. So much that he’s not even on the same planet as Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Grand Slams

Rafael

Nadal

Novak Djokovic Roger Federer
Hardcourt Grand Slams To Total Number 4/17 8/13 11/20
Avg. # of Top 10 Players Beaten Per Slam 1.5 2.63 2.45
3 or More Top 10 Players Beaten To A Slam 0 (0%) 5 (62.5%) 6 (54.5%)
Lowest Ranked Player Beaten To Win A Slam 28 4 6
2 of ‘Big 4’ Beaten To Win A Slam 0 (0%) 3 (38%) 1 (9%)

 

As you can see, the numbers aren’t even remotely close. In terms of rankings, the hardest Slam Rafael Nadal has won was by beating the World #9 and #1 (US Open 2013), or #8 and #2 (Australian Open 2009); never has he beaten three top 10 players to win one.

Many people will argue that he can only beat what’s in front of him, but there have been several times in his career where he’s made the latter rounds with the chance of achieving this, such as at the Australian Open in 2011 and 2012, and failed. Just think about it, Djokovic and Federer have won more hard court Slams beating three top 10 players than Nadal has won all together.

Combine this with the rest of the stats the table shows and it’s pretty evident all of Nadal’s hard court slams have come in weaker situations than of the Serbian and Swiss. He just hasn’t been able to beat the best consistently during the two weeks of a hard court Slam. In one of his wins (US Open 2017), he lifted the trophy without beating a top 27 player. This was the first time since Pete Sampras won his 7th and final Wimbledon title in 2000 where someone had won a Slam not beating a top 20 player.

 

Masters 1000

Rafael Nadal Novak Djokovic Roger Federer
Hardcourt Masters To Total Number 8/32 (25%) 22/30 (73.3%) 21/27 (77.8%)
Avg. # of Top 10 Players Beaten Per Masters 1.5 1.91 1.48
3 or More Top 10 Players Beaten To A Masters 2 (25%) 4 (18.1%) 1 (4.8%)
2 of ‘Big 4’ Beaten To Win A Masters 0 (0%) 4 (18.1%) 2 (9.5%)

 

The 32-year-old matches each year of his age with a Masters title, giving him more than anyone else who has ever picked up a tennis racquet. Shockingly, only a quarter of his Masters events have been won on the surface which yields two-thirds of the events.

The most surprising thing here is that unlike his hard court Slam wins, Nadal has beaten three top 10 players to win events, even more often than Roger Federer. Considering how much the “Big 4” (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray) have dominated these events for the best part of 10 years, the fact the Spaniard has never beaten two to win an event perhaps sums up his level on the surface better than anything else. He’s occasionally been good enough to beat one, but two has been far too much of an ask.

It’s pretty evident that Novak Djokovic’s resume in hard court Masters is far and beyond the other two, but just on sheer number alone you would have to put Rafael Nadal last in that “Big 4.” Even Andy Murray, who I mentioned just now, has just the one hardcourt Major to 12 Masters titles on the surface, a few in which he has beaten two of the other three–such as Toronto 2010, where he beat Nadal and Federer both in straight setss.

 

Head to Head

vs Djokovic vs Federer
Hard Head to Head 7-18 (28%) 9-11 (45%)

 

For a decade people have gone on about how Nadal “owns” the head to head against Federer, but in reality if you look at their rivalry off clay, it’s been anything but. The 37-year-old actually has a winning record on hardcourts (also leads on grass 2-1), somewhat overlooked just because of the very one-sided record on clay (13-2 to Nadal). What’s even more shocking is the World #1’s record against the current Wimbledon champion on the surface; he’s barely won over a quarter of their matches.

Rafael Nadal Novak Djokovic Roger Federer
vs Top 5 On Hard 25-37 (40.3%) 63-34 (64.9%) 74-40 (64.9%)
vs Top 10 On Hard 63-64 (49.6%) 135-52 (72.2%) 154-68 (69.4%)

 

Perhaps the most shocking statistic of the lot is his record against both top five and top 10 opponents. Not only do his two biggest rivals have great records, but the man from Mallorca, on the other hand, has losing ones. That’s right, the great Rafael Nadal has lost more matches to top five and top ten players on hard courts than he’s won. Given just how much of the season is on hard courts, it just outlines how much clay has played a big part in all the insane records he’s created, not just in Grand Slams and Masters titles but in his winning head to heads against almost every rival he’s ever had. I’m pretty sure almost everyone reading this piece didn’t expect a stat like that!

Titles

Rafael Nadal Novak Djokovic Roger Federer
Hard Court Titles To Total Number 18/79 (22.8%) 51/69 (73.9%) 67/98 (68.4%)
Hard Court Final Record 18-25 (41.9%) 51-17 (75%) 67-25 (72.8%)

 

Once again, another stat hugely against the King of Clay on hard courts. The 20-time Slam champion has almost four times the amount of hardcourt titles as him, with the 13-time one having almost three. Even statistically the weakest member of the “Big 4” overall, Andy Murray, sits on 33 hardcourt titles.

If you compare his finals record to almost every other consistent top 10 player over the last 10 years, he has the worst one. Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Del Potro, Davydenko, Tsonga, and Ferrer all have winning records–with the likes of Berdych and Soderling with only one more loss than win.

Break down these 18 titles and you find something even stranger, only half of these titles have come since 2010. Six of these nine have actually come in 2013 and 2017 alone, so in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018 thus far, he’s won a total of three hardcourt titles combined. Considering how much has been made about the Spaniard improving on hard courts over the span of his career this wasn’t what I expected to find at all, especially considering how easily exposed he was on the surface at the start of his career.

World Tour Finals

The last point I want to bring up is his record at the season ending event, the so-called tournament where there are “no easy matches” due to every match being against a top eight player who has earned their place throughout the year.

Rafael Nadal Novak Djokovic Roger Federer
Titles 0 5 6
Record 16-13 (55.2%) 31-11 (73.8%) 55-13 (80.9%)

 

The differences are shocking. Not only have Djokovic and Federer won many more matches with the same amount or less losses as Nadal, they’ve added at least five titles of the prestigious event to their names. It just goes to show that the combination of hard courts and top opponents for the 11-time Roland Garros Champion is not a very good one at all, further backing up many of my previous points.

Conclusion

Rafael Nadal is legend, there’s no denying that. However, his career on hard courts is less than stellar, especially in comparison to the all-time greats he has had the pleasure of battling throughout his career. Sure, his career off clay is highlighted by four hard court Slams but that’s really the only thing which saves it, and even then if you do break down those Slam wins you find less than spectacular numbers statistically.

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic both have two surfaces which they’re undoubtedly all-time greats on (grass and hard courts, at the very least). But after reading all of this does Rafael Nadal? You tell me.

Special thanks to Lyndon, Cindy, Jane, and Cristina for some of the statistics.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Nadal has 8 Grand-slam finals and 4 Titles on hard-court. That alone qualifies him as an all-time great on the surface (look up the numbers of Agassi and Lendl, who are ATG, for comparison ;). Federer and Djokovic are even better on the surface sure, but that only enhances Nadals achievements. Add to that the H2H between the 3 (Nadal is 3:1 against Federer at the Australian Open and 2:1 against Djokovic at the US Open) and you will realize that this article is biased crap!

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