In His Return, Nadal is Making Every Minute Count

With his first major clay event in 2018, Nadal has set the stage for one of the most efficient clay seasons of his career.

In winning his 11th Monte Carlo title last week, after a more than 10 week absence from regular play, Rafael Nadal returned with a bang.

If anyone questioned Nadal’s form going into the event, the results the Spaniard racked up by the end of the week put those doubts to rest. Over five matches, Nadal never dropped a set, not event to Dominic Thiem, the man responsible for Nadal’s only loss on clay last year.

Nadal’s set winning streak at Monte Carlo continues the streak from his 2017 Roland Garros win, making 31 straight sets won on clay (37 if you include his Davis Cup wins in 2018). That set stat is impressive in itself, but if we look at his game-winning dominance, the story gets even more interesting.

In best of 3 clay events, Nadal has historically played an average of 9 games per set. With 1 event completed in 2018, he is finishing off the competition in just 8 games per set, on average. So far Nadal is showing a new kind of efficiency at the match and set level.

In terms of actual minutes, Nadal is showing the same kind of pace per game as he did last year, taking a little over 5 minutes per game. Although that pace isn’t his fastest average (that was in 2013 with an average of 4.7 minutes per game), with fewer sets and games played he is still achieving a historic low in the time he is spending on court. So far, Nadal is averaging 84 minutes per match, which is the lowest since 2005 (the first year he appeared in the French Open main draw).

These signs of a new more efficient Nadal aren’t only interesting because he has been one of the most notoriously slow-paced players on tour. It is doubly interesting because of what it could mean for his longevity.

Nadal has had major absences from the tour for 3 consecutive years owing to injury. At this stage in his career, his ability to compete is going to critically depend on his ability to curb the amount of time he is spending on court. And, if changing his baseline style of play isn’t an option (as his minutes per game suggests), he can only reach that goal by losing as few games as possible.

So far he seems to be managing that. But how long that can continue will depend on the reason for his current dominance. Has Nadal changed strategy in some way that has helped him to shut down his opponents even more than in the past? Or is the field simply less formidable?

Delving into these questions and watching how Nadal’s efficiency evolves in the coming weeks could make for a fascinating 2018 clay court season.