clay court specialist

Nicolas Almagro No Longer Just a Clay Court Hero

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

Comeback stories and players reinventing themselves seem to have been a theme of the ATP tour for the last few years. It seems like a lot of players are reaching the peaks of their careers around the ages of 28 or 29 recently, instead of the customary 20-24. Players like Mardy Fish and Jurgen Melzer come to mind, who began having their best results late in their careers. David Ferrer is more consistent than he has ever been before now that he is 30 years old.

One such reinvention story, which has really flown under the radar for the past few years, is Nicolas Almagro. Almagro has always been a talented player, which he showed by jumping onto the scene and beating Juan Carlos Ferrero during his campaign to win his first-ever title. Almagro plays a power game that is really built on defense. He has never really had the talent to beat the top players, but he has been raising his consistency in recent years and it has really helped keep his ranking high.

Even with his obvious talent, Almagro has been known for two things. The first is being a clay court specialist; the second is keeping his ranking artificially high by playing far too many small tournaments. In fact, Almagro has played 250 events several times in the past few years even when he had 0 potential points to gain by playing in them. It’s not an unfair critique of him to say that he plays too many of these tournaments. But he is a professional and has every right to do whatever he feels necessary to compete at the highest levels or even just to bring home enough money.

The critique I want to focus on, however, is the claim that Almagro is good on clay and nowhere else. The problem with this complaint against him is, of course, that it is just no longer true. Yes, all 17 of Almagro’s career finals (12 wins and 5 runner-ups) have come on clay; and yes, Almagro is better on clay than on other surfaces. But what very few have realized is that the 27-year-old Spaniard has really picked up his level on all surfaces in the past few years.

Including this tournament, Almagro has now reached the Round of 16 of 4 straight Australian Opens. Before 2010, he had only reached the third round of 2 Slams not on clay. But it’s not just the Slam results that show Almagro’s new all-surface abilities. Before 2010, Almagro reached 5 Masters-level rounds of 16, only 1 of them on hard courts. Since then, he has gone that far 15 times, 8 on hard courts and 7 on clay.

Earlier in his career, Almagro used to look awkward and uncomfortable off of clay. You would almost expect early exits from him on hard courts, even when he was the higher-ranked player. And because he built up that reputation, a lot of people still expect that from him. But it really isn’t fair anymore. He showed his new ability to move on grass when he beat John Isner at Wimbledon in 2011. He also showed his ability to play power tennis on hard courts when he beat Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open last year and Ivan Ljubicic the year before.

By now, people who consistently watch Almagro don’t even have this distinction in their minds between clay courts and other courts. Yes, Almagro is still better on clay than on other surfaces. But the distinction is no longer that he is good on clay and bad everywhere else. Now, he’s very good everywhere and even better on clay.