• Chris Wilkinson

No contender to the King of Clay's crown

Chris Wilkinson May 1, 2012
Rafael Nadal won a seventh Barcelona Open title on Sunday © PA Photos

If there was any doubt before, I think the last two weeks have cemented Rafael Nadal's status as the best clay court player of all time. His statistics speak for themselves: a winning record of 93 per cent, seven Barcelona titles, eight consecutive Monte Carlo crowns. Nadal truly is the King of Clay.

The scary thing is I don't think he was even playing his best tennis over the last two weeks. He is that strong on clay and he showed in Monte Carlo that he is able to step it up when it matters.

As soon as he gets onto the clay he is a different beast. He has now won 34 straight matches in Barcelona, 42 in Monte Carlo. Not convinced? Consider this - Sunday's Barcelona Open victory was his 34th on the surface - while he has lost just 18 matches in his career on the dirt. Incredible.

What makes him so good on clay? First and foremost, he is mentally tough: he showed against David Ferrer when he saved five set points, that he never gives in. He plays every shot like it is match point.

His movement is phenomenal but his real weapon is the spin he puts on the ball which doesn't allow his opponents to attack the ball.

The reason Djokovic had so much success against him last year was because he was able to hit cross court to Nadal's backhand. But you have to be on top of your game to play that kind of tactic against Nadal and maintain focus and intensity throughout.

He may have broken a streak of seven consecutive defeats to Djokovic in Monte Carlo, but I do think Nadal needs to beat the world No. 1 a couple more times to shake off any nagging doubts, especially because Djokovic was clearly out-of-sorts after losing his grandfather. That said, it was a big win for Nadal regardless, because at the end of the day a win is a win.

That win could cement Nadal's belief and set him up for another unbeaten clay court season like he had back in 2010 - I don't think Djokovic will be as dominant as he was in Madrid and Rome last year.

The verdict is out on the blue clay in Madrid © Chris Wilkinson

It will be more of the same for Andy Murray as he steps up his French Open preparations. He was beaten in the quarter-finals in Monte Carlo and in Barcelona both by big-hitting opponents.

He seemed to lapse back into the problem he had last season - not playing aggressively enough and he was berating himself when he lost points. He needs to keep working and not let the big hitters hit through him and mentally keep it together.

To be fair, he was well beaten by a good player in Milos Raonic. I do think it is only a matter of time before the Canadian breaks into the top ten. He was injured for a good part of last season so he has hardly any points to defend, but he is a good player and when you look at the guys in and around the top ten - the likes of Gael Monfils, John Isner and Gilles Simon, he is as good, if not better than those guys.

He's played really well on clay the last couple of weeks and it certainly isn't his best surface. If he can get a good run going he will shoot up the rankings, and I'm sure none of the top guys will want to be drawn against him at Wimbledon.

Next week we've got the Madrid Masters, where all the attention will be on the court rather than the players. Despite widespread opposition from many players, the tournament has gone blue.

I saw the surface first hand when I was in Madrid last year. It will certainly take some getting used to! Many of the players were against the switch, but tournament owner Ion Tirias wanted a PR stunt, and you don't get much more dramatic than bright blue clay.

It remains to be seen how the court plays, and how successful it is, but it does seem crazy to mix things up so close to the French Open, it is not exactly ideal preparation for the players.

Madrid is at altitude so always plays quicker than most courts, so it could benefit the likes of Raonic and Isner, but no matter how much he is against the blue clay, Nadal will always be the man to beat. I was disappointed with the quality of the surface at Monte Carlo - it was really chewed up - hence the number of injuries.

Federer has warned if the surface is not perfect they risk turning the tournament into a debacle. Personally I would have kept the red clay, but the verdict is out on Madrid.

Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1

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Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1, who now serves as a tennis commentator and as a coach for the LTA. He is ESPN.co.uk's resident expert, providing an exclusive view on the world of tennis. Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1, who now serves as a tennis commentator and as a coach for the LTA. He is ESPN.co.uk's resident expert, providing an exclusive view on the world of tennis.