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When Rafael Nadal was beaten at Roland Garros in 2009 by Robin Soderling, the defeat felt like an aberration, and it proved just that: a year later the Spaniard redressed the balance, winning the French Open and two more majors in arguably his most successful season.
But Nadal’s elimination last week at the hands of Novak Djokovic on exactly the same spot feels less like a freak event and more like the dawn of a new era, one where being drawn against Nadal on clay does not prompt opponents to cancel their hotel bookings for the rest of the week. Crucially, the statistics suggest there may be some truth to this.
The undoubted king of clay, Nadal has twice gone an entire year without losing on the surface, and on three other occasions lost only once. None of his contemporaries has ever finished a season undefeated on clay. Even in 2009 when his great rival Roger Federer went on to win in Paris, the Swiss had already lost two matches on clay.
But 2015 may go on to be seen as the changing of the guard. Nadal’s win rate on clay at tour level had already dipped last year to 89 per cent, its lowest since 2004, when he was 18 years old. But in winning the French Open he proved that he could still raise his game when it mattered.
Federer and David Ferrer — both at the latter end of their careers — have posted win rates only just short of Nadal’s this year, and Kei Nishikori — eliminated from Roland Garros at the same stage as Nadal — will also end the year with a higher clay win rate.
Higher still are Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, both above 90 per cent. This year the pair met in the semi-finals with Djokovic going on to finish tournament runner-up, and if current trends continue, his name may become as regular a fixture on the French Open men’s singles final scoreboard as was Nadal’s before him.