Cheryl Murray at tennistalk.com is waxing poetic about Rafa on clay. (Thanks to sia for the tip.) Some of my favorite bits:
I remember the first time I saw Nadal play a match; it was the second round at the 2004 US Open, his opponent Andy Roddick. American commentator John McEnroe kept calling him a “stud”, and I thought with some amusement that John seemed to have a little crush on him. I personally didn’t think “stud” when I saw Rafael Nadal. If you’ll pardon the slight insult, I thought he looked like an assassin. I had never seen such unusual focus in a tennis player before – and certainly not one who was still a boy.
Bing! We had the same first impression.
It wasn’t until the following spring that I saw Nadal on a clay court for the first time. It was one of the more surreal experiences in my long history as a tennis fan. Because my first exposure to him had been on hard courts, I stupidly assumed that his game was clumsy, that he, with his muscles and scowl, was interesting but destined for mediocrity. In no way was I prepared for what I saw.
Poetic is not a word that is usually associated with Rafael Nadal. Intense, determined, powerful, yes. Poetry, no – but that’s the word I thought of.
There is something so very special about how Rafa moves on clay. His game is the same; his shots are the same; but that slide…it’s…sexy. It’s smooths out the rough edges. It takes an assassin’s scowl and turns it into a face of stoic concentration.
Watching Rafa on hard courts was like watching a fish try to move around on land; he put in massive effort, but the net effect was just a lot of flopping around. Put a fish back in water and everything just comes together.
And as much as he’s improved his play and movement on other surfaces over the years, he always looks the most at home on clay – as if he and clay were made for each other.