Why Does Nadal Play Well at Wimbledon but not the U.S. Open?

If Rafael Nadal can get to the final at Wimbledon, why can’t he get past the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open?

Bjorn Borg won six French Opens and five Wimbledons. Three times he won them back to back. That’s an incredible record because not only is clay the slowest surface and grass the fastest, but he won Wimbledon without ever playing a tuneup grass court tournament.

If Borg won multiple slams on the fastest surface and the slowest surface, how come he never won the U.S. Open? I always tried to figure this out by looking at his skill set. What did he do well on grass that he couldn’t do well on hard court? It wasn’t his skill set. I was looking in the wrong place for my answer.

Rafael Nadal has won three French Opens and reached the Wimbledon final twice, yet he’s only reached the quarterfinals once at the U.S. Open. The problem is not his skill set either, it’s his body.

Nadal is a grinder, possibly the most sublime grinder who ever lived, but a grinder nonetheless. His favorite surface is clay and his favorite strategy is keeping the ball in play. He sets himself up miles behind the baseline and runs down impossible balls with regularity. He can also turn a defensive play into a winner better than any other player on the ATP, but the grinding takes its toll.

Clay is a soft, forgiving surface. It lets you slide into your approach to the ball. Grass is soft too if you compare it to hard court. It’s dirt with grass growing on it, not cement. And there’s less friction. The ball skids on grass. Hard court is sticky and, um, hard.

Nadal’s knees hurt when he plays too much on hard court and it’s getting worse as his career goes along. Three hour matches of stopping and starting on a sticky surface takes its toll. He had tendonitis coming into the U.S. Open this year and it was painful to see him hobble off the court after David Ferrer ran him out of the Open in the fourth round.

Nadal has two Masters titles on outdoor hard court and one on indoor hard court so it’s not like he can’t play on the surface. It’s just that his body can’t hold up to his style of play on the unforgiving cement.

What was Borg’s problem? He didn’t like playing at the U.S. Open and he particularly hated night matches there. That didn’t stop the Open organizers from scheduling him at night because he was a huge draw.

If Borg had the excuse that he didn’t like playing the U.S. Open, it’s only an excuse if he played well on outdoor hard courts elsewhere. He did. He played 25 outdoor hard court events in his career and won seven of them while reaching the final in five more, including three finals at the U.S. Open. That means he won the title or reached the final at almost half those events.

Interesting that Borg only played 25 hard court events in his eleven year professional career. That’s less than three hard court tournaments a year. John McEnroe, during roughly the same era, played over five hard court tournaments a year. I would guess that’s a combination of two things: Borg preferred clay courts and he lived in Europe where clay courts are more popular. McEnroe lived in the U.S. where it’s hard to find anything other than a hard court.

I’d be a grinder too if I could keep the ball in the court. And I’d be much happier if the U.S. had many more clay courts. That way we’d see much more of Rafael Nadal on this side of the ocean.

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