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Known as 'King of Clay,' Rafael Nadal Still Thriving Across Surfaces

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | You'd think that winning the third-most Slams in the Open Era would be enough evidence that a guy's got game.

Or that becoming the first male player in the history of tennis to win three Grand Slams on three different surfaces (clay, grass, hard court) in the same calendar year might suggest that said game translates well across surfaces.

You'd think that might be true, but apparently it isn't.

Despite Rafael Nadal's incredible success since he first turned pro approximately 12 years ago, there are still a great number of observers that doubt the Spaniard each and every time he walks onto a court that isn't dusted in red clay.

During Rafa's recent prolonged absence from tour, there were many such theories being opined across the Internet. In his article, "Is Rafael Nadal's future stuck on clay?" Peter Bodo of ESPN.com wondered whether a more appropriate nickname for Rafa might be the "prisoner of clay."

For a guy that won the career Grand Slam at the youngest age in Open Era history.

Hopefully, doubters like this haven't regularly put money up against the Spaniard when he ventures out into the undiscovered country otherwise known as blue cement and green grass. Like, for example, at the non-clay event in Montreal last week.

After pocketing the Indian Wells trophy on hard court earlier this year, Nadal ventured out to Canada and did his usual thing -- that is, took home the title. It was Nadal's third time as champion of the event -- interestingly the same number as hard-court specialist Novak Djokovic and one more than Roger Federer, who's no slouch on the surface, either.

Don't look now, but the "King of Clay" is actually undefeated on cement this year with a tally of 12-0. And he's plowed through the likes of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Juan Martin del Potro to get there.

Taking a broader perspective, the fashion in which Nadal claimed the Canadian Open also helps illustrate that while Nadal's exceptional record at the French Open should lead any autobiographical description of his career, it should not overshadow the diversity of his talents.

The victory brought Nadal's total ATP Masters 1000 titles up to 25. A record in the sport, and comfortably ahead of the next in line, Roger Federer. An intriguing statistic when one considers that this set of elite tournaments is heavily skewed toward hard courts and those that excel on them.

Of the nine ATP Masters 1000 events contested each year, six are played on hard court and three are played on clay. Aside from the curious omission of grass, it's notable to consider that hard-court specialists consequently have twice as many chances each year to add to their career totals in the category.

With four ATP Masters 1000 titles already in the bag in 2013, Nadal will now have three more chances to tie the record of five set by Djokovic back in 2011. He'll look to extend a chance to do so against Roger Federer in the quarterfinal round at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati on Friday.

If you watched Nadal play in Montreal and Cincinnati, you may have noticed another interesting facet of recent proceedings -- the absence of medical tape adorning Nadal's knee.

Whether the tape was removed as a result of gamesmanship or actual improvement in the knee, the net takeaway is that Rafa is looking a lot more like his old self. As are his results.

This puts at risk another rallying cry of his detractors. In the last couple of years, more than a few observers have suggested that the physical demands of Nadal's playing style would almost definitely cut short his promising career.

Moreover, those perpetuating this theory have tended to lump Nadal together with Federer in regards to the timing of their respective retirements. As if an injury-plagued Nadal is somehow destined to simultaneously walk into the sunset with an aging Federer.

Like in the article written by Howard Bryant of ESPN.com.uk, "Djokovic shining in the trail of Federer and Nadal" from June 29 of this year. In it, Mr Bryant states, "It is Novak Djokovic's time to continue the golden age." He then lumps Federer and Nadal's situations together saying, "They have reached a crossroads. Federer with age, Nadal with injury."

Evidence collected thus far in 2013 suggests otherwise. This year, Nadal has accumulated one of the best overall records (50-3) on tour and with eight titles is only three short of tying his best-ever showing.

On the other end of the spectrum, Federer is sitting on only a single title with zero appearances in the final round of a Slam.

The huge chasm between their results this year highlights the five-year age difference between them possibly more starkly than any previous point in their rivalry. It also essentially nullifies the hypothesis suggesting that the "Federer-Nadal era" may be over.

Clearly, this isn't an accurate portrayal of reality. Nadal is the points leader thus far in 2013 for the No.1 ranking and has a legitimate shot at earning the top slot after the US Open.

The only aspect of the "Federer-Nadal era" that's over is likely the high degree of competitiveness in their rivalry. What's certainly not over is the era of Nadal.

It is possible that Nadal's physical style on court may force him into additional injury-sabbaticals in coming years. It's even possible that he'll ultimately be forced to treat his knee on the surgical table. But who's to say he couldn't come back stronger after such a procedure?

Either way, it seems illogical to question Nadal's abilities off clay or to speculate about the longevity of his career. After all he's done in the game, Rafa's continued success should be anything but unexpected.

Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewProchnow.

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