Brain Game: The Art of Nadal

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Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA

Rafael Nadal returns to Roland Garros in 2013 as the winner of seven of the past eight French Open championships and the owner of an astounding 52-1 record. A closer examination of Nadal’s eight attempts to win in Paris reveal the inner workings of his physical game and how he has become the undisputed King of Clay.

In eight years, he has won 98 percent of his matches, 89 percent of his sets, 65 percent of his games and 57 percent of his total points. At the French Open, he gets better at everything—even in statistical categories you would expect to see a decline:

Nadal has converted 50.4 percent of his break points in Paris, which is more than 5 percent higher than his career average. Opponents have only converted 29.7 percent of their break points, meaning the Spaniard has an advantage of more than 20 percent in this key area. Of the other French Open contenders—Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and David Ferrer—only Ferrer and Murray have a higher break point win percentage in Paris compared to the rest of their careers.

It’s considered easier to break serve on clay—unless you face Nadal. In Paris, Nadal loses his serve much less often (a little more than 4 percent). While Nadal becomes more difficult to break, his rivals all become slightly easier to break.

It’s no surprise that all of these players win more points against their opponents’ first serves in Paris, but the amount Nadal improves is startling. He’s more than 6 percent better against first serves in Paris versus the rest of his career. Federer improves the second most at 3 percent.

Nadal also shows the most improvement against second serves (3.5 percent). Murray and Federer remain about the same in this category, while Djokovic declines slightly and Ferrer almost matches Nadal with an improvement of 3.3 percent.

Originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Tennis magazine. Since publication, Andy Murray has withdrawn from this year's French Open.

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