Since suffering the injury that would lead him to miss the second half of 2012, Rafael Nadal has said that he may have to cut back his tournament schedule so that he plays fewer matches on hard courts.
For someone who wants to remain at the top of the game, that’s a tough ask. The majority of ATP ranking points come from hard-court tournaments. If Rafa stuck to the clay, he would only be able to contest one of the four majors.
Becoming a full-time clay courter would almost certainly knock Nadal out of the running for world #1. (As well as give him plenty of R&R in Mallorca.) But how bad is it? Let’s consider the possibility that in some future season, he only plays on clay.
Here is a possible 2013 schedule for a clay-only player, along with each event’s ranking points. Three 250s are on this schedule, placed to provide warm-ups after each multi-week layoff:
20-Feb Buenos Aires 250 27-Feb Acapulco 500 09-Apr Casablanca 250 16-Apr Monte Carlo 1000 23-Apr Barcelona 500 07-May Madrid 1000 14-May Rome 1000 28-May Roland Garros 2000 09-Jul Stuttgart 250 16-Jul Hamburg 500
If Rafa ran the table and won all of those events, that’s 7000 ranking points (only two of the 250s would count). Unless the rest of the field becomes much more level, that won’t be good enough for the #1 ranking. But it is a greater point total than Rafa has right now, and it would keep him in the top four. Even averaging finalist points for these 10 events would allow him to remain in the top eight.
(Getting credit for those tournament wins would be a little trickier. Players are required to show up for at least 4 500-level events, including one after the US Open. If you only play on clay, there are no options. To avoid the dreaded “zero-pointer” for not playing, Rafa might have to contest, say, Valencia. However, points from those events no longer automatically count as one of a player’s top 18 events, so as long as the requirement was met, Rafa’s six non-slam, non-required-Masters events could be Monte Carlo, Acapulco, Barcelona, Hamburg, and two 250s.)
In practice, it’s tough to imagine that Rafa (or anyone else, short of Alessio Di Mauro) would avoid hard-court events entirely. Much more likely is a scenario in which he plays all the clay court events possible and competes in hard-court events only when he feels sufficiently healthy. That might mean an occasional semifinal run; it probably also means more second-round exits.
As unlikely and unusual as it would be, the all-clay schedule may be Nadal’s best route to setting more records. With fewer injuries and much more rest, it’s easy to imagine him racking up another four or five French Open titles, along with perhaps ten more Masters crowns. It would be an unusual career trajectory, to be sure, but it would also generate more fodder for the next ten years of GOAT debates.