If Rafa Only Plays on Clay

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.


5 thoughts on “If Rafa Only Plays on Clay”

  1. I’ve been thinking the same was possible. He could also play half or more Cup ties

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  2. He could also play the grass season. Halle/Queen’s and Wimbledon would give him an extra 2250 available points, and grass isn’t tough on the knees.

  3. Great post, but I just think Rafa will never be able to just play clay again. He is used to the idea of being the best of the best on any court – it would be so hard to go back to being a dirtballer after fighting so to shed the term.

  4. Great article, Jeff.
    I discovered your blog only recently and must say I love your articles and the subjects you tackle. You not only proof to have very good tennis and mathematical knowledge but also to have the gift to explain these things (analysis and hypothesis etc..) in simple words. I wonder though how you find the time to still watch tennis matches with it.
    Anyway. I’d like to draw your attention to a perhaps insignificant detail concerning the ranking points one needs to become number one in the men’s singles rankings. On june 7th 2010 Rafael Nadal only needed to collect 8700 ranking points to return to the top spot, with Federer back than second at 8360 pts , Djokovic third at 6675 pts and Murray fourth at 5385 pts. The difference between these 8700 pts and the 7000 pts you talked about in your article, is only 1700 pts (20%). Playing a few hard court tournaments may suffice to collect these points. The other three might still have to watch out for him.

  5. I for one am glad if Rafa adjusts his schedule. It was madness the past few years. No wonder that someone like Federer stays on top… he choses his tournaments wisely to extend his career and now Rafa is at a point where he should do the same…. Hope he still shows up in Cincy and at the USO though 🙂

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