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THE KING OF CLAY

Despite physical and mental shortcomings that have intermittently limited him for the past year-and-a-half, Rafael Nadal remains the undisputed King of Clay with a staggering win percentage of 91.9

Rafael Nadal walked away from the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters last week without playing in the ATP Masters 1000 final for the first time since 2015. But the Spaniard, who lost to eventual champion Fabio Fognini in the semi-finals, is ready to put the upset behind him.

"My personal opinion is that I played one of the worst matches on clay. It's a reality. There is no need to hide it. I do not see the benefit of wanting to deny it. What has happened has happened," said Nadal ahead of the Barcelona Open.

"In Monte-Carlo, I took a step forward with how I was a week before. I lost a good opportunity to start the season in a fantastic way. But now I'm going to have another one," he said.

"This is a very special tournament that is part of the history of tennis and of my own. I have another morning to practice, and we will see how we are doing. On a physical level, I'm more or less well. The job is to find myself. During the last 18 months, I have had too many stops and ups and downs, non-tennis related. And when that happens, it's hard to pick up rhythm and continuity. But it is true that it has happened so many times, and that after things go well... everything that happened seems to be forgotten. I hope to be ready to play well. And if it is not here, it will be in Madrid, in Rome or at Roland Garros," he continued.

Back in 2005 during the Monte-Carlo finals, a little-known 19-year-old Nadal was up against the then King of Clay – Guillermo Coria. Nadal defeated Coria in a tight 4-set affair and the latter regarded the teenager Nadal as the best player in the world on clay, but his testimony of not being at his best only nullified his comment on Nadal.

Came the Rome Masters finals – both players had reached top form, and there wasn't going to be any subtle excuse this time from the loser. In one of the greatest clay-court matches of all time, Nadal outlasted his forbear in a fifth set tie-break 8-6, in 5 hours and 14 minutes. With the victory, Nadal marked the beginning of an emphatic journey. The tennis world took note of the precocious Spaniard, and within a year after Federer's 2005 French Open semi-final defeat to him, players actually gave up before they had even stepped on a clay court with him.

Rafael Nadal might still be a match or two away from his top level on clay, but the 11-time Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell champion still has what it takes to continue his mastery in clay after his victory in the Round of 16 against friend and countryman, David Ferrer.

The top-seeded Nadal ended Ferrer's time in Barcelona 6-3, 6-3 on Thursday to reach the quarter-finals of the ATP 500 event for the 13th time. Nadal admitted he didn't compete well during his opening three-set win against Argentine Leonardo Mayer that saw the end of his 30-set Barcelona win streak.

But Nadal upped his level during his 32nd – and perhaps the final – FedEx ATP Head2Head matchup against the 37-year-old Ferrer. The World No. 2 pushed Ferrer feet behind the baseline before delivering drop shots that even Ferrer couldn't track down.

"Big difference. It was a tough match in all ways yesterday. Today was a different energy, a different motivation. In general terms, for me, I needed to play with a different attitude to make a step forward, and that's what I did today," Nadal said.

The Spaniard broke in the sixth game when Ferrer missed an aggressive backhand wide, and, after a brief rain delay, clinched the set on his racquet. Nadal started quickly in the second, breaking in Ferrer's opening two service games.

During the quarterfinals, Nadal turned down the challenge from Jan-Lennard Struff to book yet another semi-final berth with a 7-5, 7-5 win. The top-seeded Nadal will next face Dominic Thiem as he seeks a 12th title on the outdoor clay courts in Barcelona.

In a recent interview, Dominic Thiem had discussed an idea in regard to what makes Nadal an unstoppable force on his favourite surface. As one of only two players to defeat him once in each of the past two seasons (QF in Rome 2017 and QF in Madrid 2018), the Austrian understands it takes special circumstances and the right conditions to unravel Nadal. Since 2017, they have faced each other seven times in European clay-court events, with Nadal holding a 5-2 edge.

"I think that Barcelona, Monte-Carlo and Roland Garros are the tournaments where it is more complicated to beat him," said Thiem. He's at home and in his zone when the courts are slow and it makes landing a winner that much more difficult.

Stefanos Tsitsipas generates a similar reaction. The Greek already knows what it's like to face Nadal on this surface, having done so last year in the Barcelona final.

"He has a gift ... in my opinion, he's very fast," says the No. 8 in the world. "He covers the court very well so you always have the feeling that, no matter what stroke you use, you're always behind the ball. He always plays with a lot of depth and has a lot of topspin in his shots. On clay, that's not easy to handle."

"He's also a master when it comes to conserving energy. He launches powerful shots, but he knows how to generate just the right amount of power at exactly the right time. Combine that with his mobility on the surface and you've got the perfect formula for success on clay. "

That sounds really easy, but with over 400 clay-court match wins, Nadal holds the record for the highest win percentage in clay – a staggering 91.9 per cent – highest among the greats, panning Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Guillermo Vilas.

ARIF MOHAMMAD

ARIF MOHAMMAD

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