Why Djokovic is Better than Federer on Clay

Every few months, a tweet pops up on my timeline saying that despite the statistical evidence against it, Roger Federer is better on clay than Novak Djokovic. This always bothers me a bit. Though Federer is unquestionably a great clay courter, I think the debate does a huge disservice to the Serb’s accomplishments. Let’s dive into why.

The Stats

There are four big tournaments on clay for ATP players: Roland-Garros, and the three Masters 1000s on the dirt: Monte-Carlo, Madrid, and Rome. Here’s the title breakdown for Federer and Djokovic.

 Big title count on clayFedererDjokovic
Monte-Carlo02
Madrid2 (he won Madrid in 2006 as well, but the tournament was on hard courts at that point)3
Rome05
Roland-Garros12
The Roland-Garros comparison is convincing enough, but check out Monte-Carlo and Rome. Not close. Federer has also won Hamburg three times, which was once a Masters 1000. He beat Nadal en route to winning his 2007 title. The tournament was downgraded to the 500 level starting in 2009.

As you can see, not only does Djokovic have more titles at every tournament, it’s not even remotely close: in total, Djokovic has won four times as many big titles on clay as Federer, 12-3 (or two times as many and 12-6 if you choose to include Hamburg). That alone should end the debate, but a key aspect of the Federer-is-better-on-clay side is extenuating circumstances, so let’s move on to section two.

Circumstances

An argument Federer backers will make is that he faced a better version of Nadal over the years, losing over and over to the young speed-demon version while Djokovic got to clean up against an older, weaker Nadal. And the point is not totally without merit — between 2005 and 2010, Federer had to play Nadal on clay 12 times and lost 10 of those matches. (That said, in their four battles on clay after 2010, Federer is winless.)

Djokovic, meanwhile, played Nadal on clay 9 times before 2011, and lost all 9 of those matches. It was only after 2011 that the Serb started racking up wins against Nadal on the terre battue, and rack them up he did: he’s now beaten Nadal on clay a staggering 8 times, at least twice as many times as anyone else.

You can argue that Djokovic’s wins over Nadal on clay in 2015 shouldn’t mean as much. (Some will lump 2016 in here as well, but the 2016 Rome quarterfinal between Djokovic and Nadal was played at a spectacularly high level.) I actually think this is canon in most conversations — even before Djokovic beat Nadal at Roland-Garros in 2021, his win in the 2015 quarterfinals wasn’t really talked about as the history-making achievement it was, because Nadal was so clearly diminished.

Here’s the thing, though. Djokovic has beaten Nadal on clay six times even outside of 2015. All of those wins were absolutely monumental, to boot. You have the pair of wins in 2011, both straight-set defeats of a Nadal who was still in the thick of his prime. You have the win in the 2013 Monte-Carlo final, which broke Nadal’s streak of — get this — eight straight titles and 46 straight wins at the tournament. You have the 2014 Rome final, won by Djokovic from a set down. You have the aforementioned 2016 Rome quarterfinal, which sparked tweets like this:

Lastly, you have the 2021 Roland-Garros semifinal. More on that later.

The other funny thing about the argument that Nadal prevented Federer from winning more on clay is that Djokovic has actually played Nadal more times on clay than Federer has: 27 to 16. Nadal has also beaten Djokovic on clay more times than he has Federer: 19 to 14. So if the great Spaniard weren’t around, it’s reasonable to assume Djokovic would still have assembled a larger trophy haul on the dirt.

If we pretend that, in a Nadal-less universe, Djokovic and Federer would have won every clay tournament in which they lost to Nadal, here is what the table from earlier would look like:

 Big title count on clay (loss to Nadal = won tournament)FedererDjokovic
Monte-Carlo3 (inflated by two losses to Nadal)5 (inflated by two losses to Nadal)
Madrid4 (inflated by two losses to Nadal)5 (inflated by two losses to Nadal)
Rome2 (inflated by two losses to Nadal)11 (inflated by six losses to Nadal)
Roland-Garros7 (inflated by six losses to Nadal)9 (inflated by seven losses to Nadal)
Djokovic’s lead in big titles on clay extends from 9 to 14.

It’s also not a knock on Djokovic that he’s lost more to Nadal at the big clay tournaments. As we’ve established, he has a better win percentage against Nadal on clay than Federer. Djokovic has just had to play the Spaniard more.

Matchups

Another argument used to back Federer in this debate is that Nadal is a far more difficult matchup for the Swiss than for Djokovic. Nadal’s forehand tortures Federer’s backhand, while the Serb’s two-hander holds up far better. Not only that, but Djokovic, with his all-time-great service returns and ability to take time away from his opponents, is tailor-made in some ways to beat Nadal.

This is all true. It’s simply harder for Federer to win the matchup than it is for Djokovic. However, Nadal is good enough on clay to blunt the meaning of a matchup to an extent — Federer has had a terrible time trying to beat Nadal at Roland-Garros, but it’s not like anyone else has done much better. Djokovic, better matchup notwithstanding, lost his first nine matches to Nadal on clay. It wasn’t that Nadal played significantly worse when Djokovic finally beat him at Madrid in 2011, it was that the Serb had developed physically and stuck to the winning pattern of pinning Nadal in his backhand corner. Federer has never been able to show the same commitment to this tactic. His one-handed backhand makes hitting down the line more difficult, yes, but he also lacks the tactical discipline at times required to beat Nadal on clay. Despite playing the Spaniard at Roland-Garros four straight times and six times in all, he’s never really improved from previous performances — he took a set the first time they played in Paris and could never do more than that over the course of five more attempts in 14 years. Djokovic, meanwhile, has tended to do better against Nadal the more chances he’s had (with exceptions, notably the 2020 final in Paris).

Here is a breakdown of how many forehands and backhands Nadal has hit in his Roland-Garros matches against Federer and Djokovic. With the Spaniard’s forehand being his dominant shot, forcing him to hit more backhands can be seen as a strong or well-executed gameplan.

Nadal’s forehand-backhand spread in his Roland-Garros matches against Federer200520062007200820112019
# of forehands hit302269314173304244
# of backhands hit221232212162241151
Note that Nadal has always been able to hit more forehands than backhands, sometimes by a long way. The total breakdown here is 1606 forehands and 1219 backhands, an average of 1.317 forehands hit for every backhand. Stats are via Tennis Abstract.
Nadal’s forehand-backhand spread in his Roland-Garros matches against Djokovic200620072008201220132014201520202021
# of forehands hit138235277374395290233225303
# of backhands hit120200242308354196164227323
Check out that last column. The total breakdown is 2470 forehands and 2134 backhands, an average of 1.157 forehands hit for every backhand. Stats: Tennis Abstract

This isn’t an exact science — note that Djokovic made Nadal hit more backhands than forehands in the 2020 Roland-Garros final and got blown out anyway, 0-6, 2-6, 5-7. And, ironically, Federer’s best attempt at making Nadal hit more backhands took place during his most lopsided loss (2008). Overall, though, the difference is clear. Federer has never been able to focus a strong enough assault on Nadal’s backhand, despite having perhaps the best forehand of all time in those 2005-2008 years (though you can ignore that 2008 final). He lacked a consistent backhand down the line, yes, but he also lacked commitment to the proper tactic. Djokovic has been the superior tactician — remember those angled forehands in the 2021 semifinal? The Serb was committed to pulling Nadal wide on the deuce side on every point he had an opportunity. Say what you will about Nadal having a bad backhand day and his foot possibly impacting the tail end of that match, but Federer has never hit such sharp angles against Nadal at Roland-Garros in this sustained fashion, despite having the forehand capable of delivering them. That’s not down to a bad matchup, it’s down to the gameplan he chose.

Nadal actually comes back to win this point, but observe how far away from the center of the court Djokovic has yanked him. This was a common sight during this match. Screenshot: Roland-Garros
By the middle/end of this match, Djokovic was finding some absurdly sharp angles. In the third set, he pulled Nadal into the deuce-side alley 17 times and won 16 of those points. Stats via Jack Edward.

Bad matchups are a nuisance, but the best players have to find a way to break them. Nadal on clay is a bad matchup for Djokovic as well as Federer, and only the Serb has managed to find a way out.

Head-to-head

The head-to-head between Federer and Djokovic on clay is 4-4.

Perhaps the most notable of these matches was the 2011 Roland-Garros semifinal. Djokovic was riding a 40+ match winning streak, and there were serious conversations about whether he was the favorite over Nadal to win in Paris that year. Federer played a dynamite match to take him out, though: 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5). There is a YouTube highlight video of this match called “The Day Roger Federer Played the Match of His Life.” I would point those who think this match means Federer is better on clay than Djokovic to their rematch the following year. Djokovic dismissed the Swiss 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, despite not playing particularly well up to that point in the tournament. This was also in a year where Federer would regain the #1 ranking and win Wimbledon, beating Djokovic along the way. The head-to-head, for me, doesn’t sway the debate much in either direction, though it has produced some very fun clashes.

Performance against players not named Nadal

Djokovic is 244-59 on clay in his career, good for an 80.5% win rate. If you take out his matches with Nadal, in which he is 8-19 (42.1%), his overall record improves to 236-40, or 85.5%.

Federer is 226-71 on clay in his career — note that despite being far older than Djokovic, he’s actually played fewer matches on the surface than the Serb (albeit only six). That’s a 76.1% win rate, which rises to 79.7% when his 2-14 record against Nadal is removed. He’s over five full percentage points below Djokovic.

Consistency

This gap in overall win rate will presumably close a bit as Djokovic continues to age. It’s worth noting, though, that he just won Roland-Garros at the age of 34. Dating back to 2006, Djokovic has made the Roland-Garros quarterfinals or better an outrageous 16 times in 17 attempts. Federer’s consistency hasn’t been on that level — after his first quarterfinal berth in 2001 (if this seems early, Djokovic made his first Roland-Garros QF in 2006, also well before he won his first major), he failed to make it past the third round the next three years. The Swiss went incredibly deep at every Roland-Garros tournament from 2005 t0 2012, but lost to Tsonga, Gulbis, and Wawrinka at the respective next three editions, in the last eight or earlier.

In 2017 and 2018, Federer neglected to play the clay season entirely. He was physically fit, but elected to use the time to prepare for Wimbledon rather than aim for titles on the dirt. Djokovic isn’t quite as old as Federer was in 2017, but he is still throwing himself into the clay season with considerable success — he won a Masters 1000 title on the dirt in 2019 and 2020. After Nadal waxed him in the 2020 Roland-Garros final, many (including me) thought Djokovic didn’t have a realistic chance of winning the Parisian major again, yet the Serb returned to take the title the very next year.

Conclusion

I can see how this would have been a fun debate in, say, 2015, but in today’s tennis world, the breakdown of Djokovic and Federer’s achievements on clay is not particularly close. Beyond the obvious and significant disparity in big titles, Djokovic has been more consistent and made a much bigger dent in Nadal’s empire, which isn’t only due to being a better matchup for the Spaniard. If that weren’t enough, it looks as if Djokovic’s longevity as a relevant competitor on clay will eclipse Federer’s as well.

Federer is a great clay court player. It’s not a disservice to him to say that Djokovic is better.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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