Is Nadal just a clay court specialist?

Interesting analysis in Economist:


According to Elo ratings—an algorithm that evaluates players based on their performances and the quality of their opponents, and can be limited to matches played on a single surface—the gap between Mr Nadal’s clay-court and hard-court performances is about twice as large as Mr Federer’s.

In 2009, just before that year’s French Open, Mr Nadal recorded the highest-ever clay-court Elo score, at 2,543. That exceeded his hard-court Elo mark at the time by 273 points—a differential as big as the chasm between the current world number one by Elo, Novak Djokovic, and Alexander Zverev, ranked tenth. It suggests that the clay-court version of Mr Nadal at his best would beat the hard-court form of the same player 83% of the time.

 Mr Nadal’s penchant for clay has remained nearly as strong for most of his career: the gap between his clay- and hard-court Elo scores briefly dipped below 200 points in 2014, but has rebounded to 267 points today. His career-average surface preference is more extreme than that of any other player currently ranked in the top 50. Where you place Mr Nadal in the overall pantheon of tennis greats depends largely on whether you think he should be rewarded or penalised for deriving such a disproportionate share of his value from just one of the sport’s three environments.

By contrast, surfaces have had a much smaller impact on Mr Federer’s game. His Elo scores on hard courts have usually been less than 150 points higher than his marks on clay. And after he won the 2009 French Open—one of only three times since 2005 that the trophy did not go to Mr Nadal— Mr Federer’s clay rating actually surpassed his hard-court number. Of course, that did not make him a better clay-court player than Mr Nadal: the Spaniard’s clay-court Elo mark was still over 200 points higher than Mr Federer’s, implying that Mr Nadal would have a 77% chance of winning a match between them on clay at that point. But it does show that Mr Federer was a more well-rounded player.

It would be unfair to dismiss Mr Nadal as a one-trick clay pony. In the past, single-surface specialists went to great lengths to maximise the share of their matches played on their preferred court type. Guillermo Vilas, the previous record-holder for most titles on clay, played a whopping 60% of his career on that surface. Today, however, scheduling is more rigid: three of the four grand-slam tournaments are played on hard or grass courts, as are six of the nine events in the second tier of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour, the Masters 1000 series. And Mr Nadal cannot be accused of selectively skipping events to pad his win rate. Clay-court events represent just a third of his total.

Given the strong comeback, the Spaniard could prove all wrong in few years..

Now that Mr Nadal is over 30, it is tempting to assume that his days of contending for titles in non-clay events are over. However, his hard-court Elo score still ranks fourth in the world, behind Mr Djokovic, Mr Federer and Andy Murray, the defending Wimbledon champion. And although grass-specific ratings are less reliable, because relatively few events are played on turf, Mr Nadal did go on to win Wimbledon in each of the past two years that he claimed victory at Roland Garros without dropping a set. The clay-court master may not have to wait until next spring to improve his case to be considered the greatest of all time—on any surface.

There was this recent piece on oligarchy in Men’s tennis. With Federer and Nadal both winning this year’s first two Grand Slams, the case for oligarchy has only strengthened.


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