Nadal Set for a 2017 Clay Season Repeat

As the tour prepares for Monte Carlo, Rafael Nadal finds himself at the top of the clay-adjusted Elo ratings for the first time since 2014.

Having only recently returned to professional play after a break due to an ongoing knee injury, many may be questioning Nadal’s title prospects for the clay season. Nadal looked in peak form in his two clay wins that helped Spain overcome Germany in a Davis Cup tie just over a week ago. But two match wins are only a fraction of what he will have to do if he is going to defend his title at Roland Garros and bag several Masters titles along the way.

Nadal has played much less in 2018 so far than 2017 but in some ways 2017 is the best indicator of what he is likely to do this clay season. 2017 was also a year that saw Nadal returning from an injury break and enter the clay swing without having claimed a big title.

And, as in 2017, a big factor that could decide whether Nadal will be the ‘king of clay’ for yet another year is the field he will have to contend against. With Federer out for another year and the form and presence of Djokovic and Murray being highly questionable, Nadal finds himself facing the kind of competition at the top as he did in 2017.

In fact, a closer look suggests that 2018 should be even rosier for Nadal.

When we look at Nadal’s clay-weighted Elo ratings going into Monte Carlo (right panel below), we can see that he appears to have passed his peak. From 2005 to 2014 Nadal was on a skyrocketing path upward, bettering his clay form in nearly every year. In 2014, he reached a remarkable rating of +2467, his highest ever at this time of the calendar.

That trend couldn’t last forever, especially with the physical struggles Nadal has had throughout his career and with the tough rival that Novak Djokovic was from 2011 to 2016. Since 2015, Nadal’s form has been trending downward with the sharpest fall coming between 2015 and 2016, when Nadal had the worst Roland Garros result of his career, retiring before his third round match.

But 2017 ushered in a new reality for men’s tennis. A reality in which Nadal doesn’t have to be ‘peak Nadal’ to still dominate on clay. In 2017, despite heading into the clay season at 92% of his peak pre-season rating, Nadal won 24 of 25 matches on clay, 2 masters titles, and the French Open title for the 10th time.

Given those stats, 2018 is shaping up to be an even better situation for Nadal. Not only does he head into Monte Carlo with a 1% gain in his rating over 2017 but he also takes the top-rating position of all players for the first time since 2014.

While the numbers point strongly in favour of a 2017 repeat for Nadal, the trends in Nadal’s ratings trajectory do highlight a few fascinating unknowns. First, what impact will being ‘less than his personal best’ have on Nadal? Could his perfectionist spirit make him more vulnerable than his rating position suggests? And what about the younger players like Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev who are on a rising trajectory on clay? Will momentum help them to make a breakthrough?

As much as the 2018 clay season is likely to follow the path of 2017, these unknowables should nonetheless keep us guessing in the weeks ahead.