Mailbag: Appreciating Rafael Nadal's Jaw-Dropping Brilliance on Clay

Rafa Nadal just won his 11th (!) Monte Carlo Masters title. We may never see another athlete dominate like he does on clay. 
Publish date:


• After a one-week absence, we will indeed have a new podcast tomorrow.

• Offered without comment, here’s a link to your most recent USTA financials: 



Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.


We all have to take a step back, run the analytics and recognize that Rafael Nadal's dominance on the surface of truth—clay—is one of the greatest achievements in the history of sport. Akin to the great American racehorse Secretariat—an athlete simply on a level far above even the elite of the sport—but alo with longevity, mental toughness and perseverance. The injuries Rafa has suffered year after year would have discouraged most. Rafa never gave up and is always in good cheer. He is truly remarkable. 

• Yes, let’s start with Nadal on Clay, which has become a phrase akin to “Jordan on Hardwood” or “Phelps Under Water” or “Michelanelo with Marble.” He is truly remarkable.  If we run the analytics, as Martin suggests, it’s hard to resist giggling at the sheer absurdity of the results. Coming off of his 11th— not a typo—Monte Carlo Masters 1000 title, Nadal is 396-35 for his career on clay, a win rate of 92%. He, of course, is aiming for 11thFrench Open title, a major he has won more times than any other player has won any other Slam. 

As Martin notes, it’s an oversimplification to chalk this kind of unprecedented success simply to “clay court aptitude.” This is an alchemy of skill, athleticism, persistence and an unshakable mental fortitude. All the more impressive is the fact that Nadal realizes year after year that this stretch of the calendar is “his time.” Somehow, this imbues him with confidence, not pressure. 

But, yes, let’s linger on the physical dimension a bit longer. Since Nadal was in his early 20’s, the book on him read as follows: “Great player, but such a brutal, taxing style. He can’t sustain it much longer.” No doubt, he’s had his share of injuries. But here we are, with Rafa approaching 32, and he’s not merely World No. 1. When clay is underfoot, he’s simply playing a different sport from the rest of the field. Enjoy it while you can, because who knows if we will ever see a tennis player/athlete dominate a sector like this again. And if you’re looking for a fresh angle to an old story, give Nadal credit for this unexpected career longevity.

A few days so, a reader joked—or half joked—that Nadal ought to restrict his schedule to clay and grass. Clay because he dominates, grass because it’s easier on the body. Obviously, this is fanciful. Nadal, lest we forget, is the reigning U.S. Open champion. But there’s a larger point worth considering.  Not only do Nadal’s results on hard courts fail to keep pace with his clay success (what does?), but it’s also on asphalt that his body breaks down. Not unlike Federer, we will soon enter a phase when he really needs to pick his spots.

They are hoping a Swiss wins…

…with bonus money for Feta-er

Will Thomas Muenster come out of retirement?
Clint Swett, Sacramento

Swiss is best! (Easy Federer tie-in)…You know there will be plenty of STRING cheese…Simona Halep-eno cheddar (royalties to Brad Gilbert)…Come PEPPER JACK Sock with questions.
Keegan Greenier

• This pertains to the U.S. Open Series' signing “Cheeses of Europe” as the new sponsor.

Within moments of the announcements, you guys started with the puns. I couldn’t resist getting into this fondue myself. In limerick form:…..

The USTA’s greatest fears?

A stadium roof leaves the “non-profit” in arrears

After failed domestic pleas

They got that overseas cheese

So at least profits gruyere over year.

That contract with cheese, would be betterer

If it came with a guaranteed Federer

It’s a sponsorship miss

Full of holes, a la Swiss

If summer tennis is only American slices—and cheddar-er.

Want to show that your sport isn’t for twees?

(*Unless it’s Larson) don’t align with bries.

But the USTA revenues

Are now blackened by bleus

Thanks to cheddar from that Euro-cheese. 

Controversy for clicks... such a shame. What did you hope to accomplish? How does regurgitating old news help our game? So many great stories you could be covering and you bring up this crap? I thought @SI_Tennis@jon_wertheim were above this type of journalism.

• Not surprisingly—in fact, completely predictably—there was some fairly severe backlash for last week’s piece on Tennys Sandgren. So it goes, in these divided times. What did I hope to accomplish? Some level of measured discourse, which may have been either too ambitious or just naïve. 

What was my rationale? It’s been a few months since Sandgren’s triumphant-yet-regrettable Australian Open. Not a week goes by without someone asking about him about it. Ignore these questions and you stand accused of “normalizing.” Address him and stand accused of “controversy for clicks.” (Aside: as an allegation, fishing for clickbait is second only to plagiarism as a journalistic crime.) Yet as Sandgren reached the Houston final and pierced the top 50, it became clear that he would continue to be part of the tennis firmament. Just as he ain’t going away, neither is the controversy roiled in Australia.

Some of you thought I let Sandgren off too easy. (Read: I’m getting old and suffering from empathy.) Some of you thought it unnecessary to revisit this unpleasant topic. (I would disagree here.) To me, this story is really as much about the power and peril of social media (and, yes, mediamedia) as it is anything else. Inasmuch as there’s a silver lining here, Sandgren has A) clarified some his views and denounced the alt-right and B) not let this thwart his tennis progress. Carry on. 

Jon, I heard you mention her on your podcast with Danielle Collins, so I have to ask. Will you vote for Ana Ivanovic for the Hall of Fame?
T.J., Chicago

• We’d gone few weeks without a single Hall of Fame question. And I started to think: What the hell is wrong with you people? You care about tennis TV angles and Nick Kyrgios’ clay court abilities but not whether [insert player name] is or isn't worthy of enshrinement? 

So thanks for that reversion to the mean. As for new mother Ana Ivanovic, who knows? She’s lovely. She’s a human being, full of curiosity and good nature. She reads books. And she got to World No. 1 and won a Slam (the 2008 French Open). Those are pluses. But otherwise her credentials are a bit light. Then again, so are the credentials—note the strained and strenuous effort to avoid the horrible term “resume,” as if Boris Becker and his ilk are carrying around C.V.’s—of this year’s enshrinees. This is the problem with precedent. A year ago, Ivanovic probably gets a gentle denial. But now? I suspect she’s gets the wave through the velvet ropes.

Sloane Stephens is the WTA equivalent of Stan Wawrinka: capable of beating any player on a good day, but also capable of losing to any player when the mind is unwilling. Discuss.
Croydon F., Chicago

• Not a bad comparison. If we wanted to get all high school English paper, we could take this a step further. Both are fine athletes. Both are cast a bit in the shadows by having the GOAT as a countryman and contemporary.

Shapovalov’s “wayward shot”? Really? He struck the ball as hard as he could, in anger, in the direction of the chair umpire. Surely a writer of your stature could come up with a better description of the event.

• I could ague that part of writing is the utilization of euphemism. But your point is well-taken. Given Shapovalov’s absence of ill intent, his age and his extreme remorse (and yes, my latent one-handed-backhand bias), I’m reluctant to crack him too hard. “Wayward,” though, might be a smidge too benign. Say this: it’s a relief that the chair umpire struck by the ball is back on the job. And it’s also a relief that Shapovalov is still best known for his tennis and this traumatic event didn’t send his career on, you know, a wayward trajectory.

I like your column (and I enjoy catching you on 60 Minutes) but I have to ask: why are you so big on Nick Kyrgios? I see a player who isn’t committed, loses focus, and now gets injured all the time. How much time are you going to give him before you admit you’re wrong?
Jeff, Brooklyn

• Sure, to borrow a phrase, his ambition should be made of sterner stuff. But here are the factors in my plus column:

1. Supreme talent
2. Good nature
3. Love of the big stage 
4. 5-4 record against the Big Three
5. The reality that age 23—which NK turns in a few days–is still the taxi before takeoff
6. The reality that a Slam (which would recast the script) only entails seven straight wins.
7. Perhaps a journalist’s latent desire for the more colorful figures to succeed.


A 13-year old from Hanover New Hampshire, Gianluca Audia, is using his love of tennis to help kids with Down syndrome get into tennis too.  Thought it may be the makings of a story for your Tennis podcast or other tennis-related works.
Billie Munro Audia

• Thanks for sending.

Wonder if you could get a groundswell going among listeners/readers to get some Hollywood entity to option John McPhee's Levels of the Game. In the right hands, this could become the ultimate tennis film. Given its class and racial frames, it's certainly of the moment. (And if someone's already optioned it, why the hell hasn't it been made?) Anyway, I'm addicted to the podcast—you and the Brits, Law and Whitaker. It's why they invented radio. Sorry I didn't bump into you in Indian Wells. Hell of a tournament this year.

Ken Greenberg, Hollywood, but decidedly not from The Industry

 • If fandom for John McPhee were forearms, I’d be Rod Laver. So bear that in mind. But you are right. The contrasts, the tension, the three-act arc. It’s all there. Speaking of: imagine if there were a Federer/Nadal documentary, perhaps discussing their textured rivalry and relationship through the prism of a match. That would be something, wouldn’t it?  

Shots, miscellany

• Who wants to play tennis with Rafa Nadal?

• John Farley is in favor of tennis meditation:

• A nice profile on Pickleball champion JoAnne Russell

• Enjoyed this piece on Max Mirnyi:

• The USTA announced that Amazon Prime Video has been granted the exclusive live telecast rights to the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. The five-year agreement, which begins with the 2018 US Open, will bring live and on-demand content to Prime members in both territories at no additional cost. Prime members in the U.K. and Ireland will have access to live match play emanating from the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open. Prime Video will also provide access to on-demand match highlights and other content.

• Dunlop announced the addition of seasoned sales professional Matt Helms to its sales team. Helms will handle the territory comprised of Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas (except northwest Arkansas) and the Florida Panhandle. Matt previously worked with Dunlop from 1997-2004. He was named Salesman of the Year in 1999 and 2001.

• The International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the United States Tennis Association (USTA) announced that the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters will be held this year at the USTA National Campus in Orlando for the first time. The ITF’s official year-end singles championship on the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour will take place on Nov. 28 – Dec. 2.

Reader Riff

Another interesting and provocative “Mailbag” last week, starting off with the continuing saga of Tennys Sandgren. I, however, was most taken with the Reader Riff on Bonnie MacKay Barnes.  There was a passing reference about Bonnie MacKay playing an exhibition against Maureen (“Little Mo”) Connolly at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. That jolted a memory of myself reading about Maureen Connolly in the New York tabloids when I was a young teenager. That reference sent me scurrying off to, where else, Wikipedia, for more information. Perhaps not well-known is that “Little Mo" was the first woman to win a calendar year Grand Slam, in 1953, and only the 2ndtennis player, after Don Budge, to do so—of course, more have followed. She won nine Grand Slam singles titles in her four-year career.

Ask most anyone under the age of 60 (I’m not) who she was and you may get a blank stare, or they will say “yes, but who did she play?”  The answer, of course, is “the best players of her generation.”

Maureen Connolly, who died of ovarian cancer at the way-too-young age of 34, should be part of the conversation on the history of tennis. At present, there is regrettably little talk about her in the discussion of American tennis history. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to honor her for the trailblazer that she was, perhaps with the naming a tennis court—like the unnamed grandstand at the U.S. Open—or, more appropriately, one of the Grandstand Courts at Indian Wells in her home state of California. 
Emilio Bandiero, Shedd, Ore.