Rafael Nadal: What If Two Calendar Slams Were Contested on Clay?

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COMMENTARY | This might be the best time of the tennis season. With only two weeks between the end of the French Open and the beginning of Wimbledon, almost every fan of tennis can find something to believe in.

If your favorite player fell short at Roland Garros then it's probably not difficult to generate some positive energy about his chances in London.

On the other end of the spectrum, fans of Rafael Nadal are, of course, riding extremely high right now.

The Man from Mallorca pancaked any doubt about his ability to return from injury and even stamped an exclamation point on his comeback by winning his eighth Coupe des Mousquetaires.

It's downright unbelievable to think Nadal has won the French eight times in nine tries at the age of 27. Federer is a maestro on grass and has won Wimbledon an amazing seven times. However, that was in 14 tries.

If Federer is to be considered super-human, what exactly is Nadal? A question that probably won't be accurately answered until well after this era has passed.

Since Nadal closed out his victory against Ferrer on Sunday, it feels like there's another question hanging out in the ether as well. One that can never be accurately answered but will likely be asked many more times in the future.

What if there were two calendar Slams played on clay instead of one?

There was a short time in the sport's history when that was exactly the case. From 1975 to 1977, the US Open was actually played on clay and for a total of three years, precisely half of the Slam schedule was dedicated to the dirt.

Can you imagine the ramifications today if that arrangement had persisted? A hypothetical such as this isn't constructive for anything resembling a comprehensive analysis of the modern game.

But as a tribute to Rafa's record eighth Slam victory at the same tournament, it's worth considering how the world might look with a second Slam on clay.

Fast Court vs. Slow Court

Clearly, players that possess skills well-suited to faster surfaces have an edge in the modern game. The two players with the most Slam wins in history, Roger Federer (17) and Pete Sampras (14), both excelled on grass and hard court.

It doesn't take a deep analysis of their respective careers to see that both players enjoyed an inordinate degree of success at the US Open and Wimbledon, widely known as the two faster Slams of the year.

Roger Federer won 12 of his career 17 Slams at those two tournaments, representing approximately 70% of his total. Pete Sampras also won 12 of his Slams at those same two events, although with three fewer than Federer overall, his concentration was higher at around 86%.

Federer and Sampras combined took home only one single title from the French Open (to date). It should be noted that Federer made four other finals in which he faced the King of Clay, but this daunting fact doesn't alter the total tally.

The fact that Federer and Sampras both possessed games that translated well across quick surfaces ultimately gave them twice as many chances to win a Slam in any given year than a slow-court specialist. Factoring in the Australian Open, known as a slower-playing hard court, ups their chances even more.

Looking at Nadal, we see a player that clearly excels on the slower-paced clay.

Rafa's 59-1 record at the French Open is the best for any player at any Slam.

That doesn't mean Rafa is a one-trick pony, far from it in fact. Rafa was not only the youngest player to complete the career Grand Slam, but he has also stood toe-to-toe with some of the all-time greats on their preferred surfaces and come out on top.

Having said that, Nadal still only gets one chance in every calendar year to showcase his talents in their natural environment at a Grand Slam.

US Open: Clay, Grass or Hard Court?

Returning to the original question, one has to wonder what the world would look like today if the US Open was still played on clay.

It's not guaranteed that Nadal would have had the same success at a US Open played on clay than he's had at the French Open, but it's far more reasonable to suggest his results would have been better than on grass or hard court.

Looking at the past records of Federer and Sampras on clay, one could also surmise that those two players might not have had the same degree of success at a US Open dusted with blue clay instead of inlaid with blue cement.

The final numbers are debatable, but let's safely call it a few less titles for Federer and Sampras and a few more for Mr. King of Clay.

Contrarians will surely point out that prior to the three years when the US Open was played on clay, the tournament since its inception through 1974 was played on grass. That same group may wonder about a hypothetical scenario in which the tournament remained a grass event forevermore.

The fact is, that probably wouldn't have changed the equation too much.

Federer and Sampras might have had slightly more success on grass in New York than on hard court, but it's arguable that Nadal probably would have, too. Nadal has appeared in five Wimbledon finals already in his career.

That objection also strays from the crux of the argument anyway, which is that the current format of the four Slams somewhat favors players with talents geared toward faster surfaces. The math dictates some sort of favoritism, given the system involves four different tournaments on three unique surfaces.

Looking at the current all-time rankings in which Nadal stands a couple titles short of Sampras and a few more short of Federer one still has to wonder how the world might look if the US Open would have stuck with clay instead of backing up the cement trucks at Flushing Meadows.

Logic suggests it would bring the totals of Federer, Nadal, and Sampras a little closer in line than they sit today. Clay at the US Open would also have favored one Bjorn Borg, likely bringing him even with that group, too.

Given the game developed as we see it now, the most any of us can do is speculate about a tennis world in which clay ruled for half the season.

Such thinking also helps highlight the fact that players with talents well-suited on faster surfaces should consequently have a better opportunity to collect more Slam hardware during any given year.

Which is exactly the reality that has come to pass, isn't it?

Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. He is a frequent contributor at the Bleacher Report.

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