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Rafael Nadal's return game is one of the keys to his clay-court success.

Nadal Does This One Thing So Much Better On Clay

Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers shows how Nadal's game improves when he switches from hard to clay

Rafael Nadal is essentially the same server on clay courts and hard courts. It’s the returning side of the game on clay where beast mode kicks in for the Spaniard.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of Nadal identifies that his serve metrics remarkably stay similar when he switches surfaces, from hard to clay. Our impression is that everything dramatically improves on clay, but that’s simply not the case.

Nadal Serving
The following serve metrics show just how close his career serve numbers are between hard and clay.

Nadal's Career Serve Metrics: Hard Court vs Clay Court


Career Hard-Court Win Percentage & Ranking

Career Clay-Court Win Percentage & Ranking

Service Games Won

85.48% (18th)

84.53% (6th)

1st Serve Percentage

67.30% (11th)

70.75% (9th)

1st Serve Points Won

72.11% (167th)

70.33% (81st)

2nd Serve Points Won

57.44% (1st)

56.46% (1st)

Break Points Saved

66.38% (16th)

66.52% (6th)

What’s fascinating is that Nadal’s Service Games Won drops less than one percentage point (85.48% to 84.53%) when he moves from hard court to clay court.

It’s impressive to note that the Spaniard is the best in our sport at winning second-serve points on both hard court and clay court. That is due to his heavy slice delivery, and his ability to back it up with a potent Serve +1 forehand that immediately puts the returner on defence.

Nadal Returning
This is where the move from hard courts to clay courts has the most dramatic effect on Nadal’s game.


Career Hard-Court Win Percentage & Ranking

Career Clay-Court Win Percentage & Ranking

Return Games Won

29.26% (12th)

42.74% (1st)

1st Serve Return Points Won

31.62% (23rd)

39.71% (1st)

2nd Serve Return Points Won

53.99% (12th)

57.90% (1st)

Break Points Converted

42.39% (51st)

48.60% (2nd)

Nadal is spectacularly ranked first in three of the four return metrics on clay. He is second to Andrei Chesnokov in Break Points Converted, narrowly trailing 48.81 per cent to 48.60 per cent.

Nadal enjoys a massive leap in Return Games Won on clay, jumping more than 13 percentage points all the way up from 29.26 per cent to 42.74 per cent. For every 10 return games he plays on clay, the server wins about six, while Nadal wins four. This is the engine room of his clay-court dominance.

You May Also Like: Returning Serve: The Long & Short Of It

Overall, there is not one serve or return metric that Nadal has a superior career ranking on hard courts over clay courts. Step one for the Spaniard is to keep the serving side of the equation on clay as close as possible to his serving on hard. He has certainly achieved that. Step two is to put up unprecedented numbers when he returns serve.

When returning on clay, Nadal typically stands way back to let the speed of the serve slow down for greater return consistency and also to allow more time to deliver a full-blooded swing at the ball. He then looks to improve his court position up closer to the baseline as the point unfolds, looking to crush his forehand from locations all over the court.

Serving against Nadal on hard court is always challenging. Serving against him on clay is downright formidable.

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