On hard courts, it's another story.
In five attempts at the U.S. Open, the best he could muster was a quarterfinal finish. He fared no better at the Australian Open -- a loss to eventual finalist Fernando Gonzalez last year in the quarters was his best showing in three previous trips.
That is until now.
Nadal's run to the semis at Melbourne Park this year has him talking about being an all-round, all-court player. His 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 win over Jarkko Nieminen in the quarterfinals Tuesday just reinforced his enthusiasm.
"Everyone tells me you have to play more aggressive on hard courts," Nadal says. "You have to serve better. I am working very hard."
He added his longtime coach, uncle Toni Nadal, has been helping him stay focused: "My uncle always repeats the same: 'Go inside. Don't lose court. Don't go behind the line."'
Nadal is being a good student.
"People know if we play long points from the baseline, I have a bit more of a chance," Nadal said. "So they try to come inside, and I have to do the same. When I am playing fine, I can play well on all surfaces."
Nadal has been impressive this past week, saving nine break points in the first sets of his five matches, and winning all of them in straight sets.
Actually, he's gone through five rounds needing only to play 14 1-2 sets, advancing in the fourth round when Paul-Henri Mathieu pulled out with a calf injury trailing Nadal 6-4, 3-0.
Nieminen is impressed with Nadal's court prowess.
"He's playing great," Nieminen said. "He has weapons to win almost any point and any game, but in the long run, he's so good. He gets so many balls back, and when he can go around with his forehand, then it's always trouble. To beat him best of five, it's very tough."
On Tuesday in Rod Laver Arena, Nieminen served at 5-5 in the first set. Nadal scampered in to get to one low volley from his shoetops, then picked up the next in mid-air, flicking it for a perfect lob winner.
He followed by nailing a return of serve winner for the first break, then held in the next game to take the first set.
As a gusty wind kicked up, Nadal quickly went up two breaks in the second set. Nieminen got one back, aided by a great overhead from two steps behind the baseline, but the deficit was too much to overcome as Nadal broke again at love, finishing off the set with a return to Nieminen's feet.
After running off to a 5-1 lead in the third set, Nadal saved a break point, then finished off the match with an easy overhead with Nieminen already jogging toward the side of the net to offer congratulations.
Nadal next plays unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who upset seeded players Andy Murray in the first round, fellow Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the fourth round and Mikhail Youzhny in the quarterfinals.
"He's a very aggressive player, big serve," Nadal said of Tsonga. "I'll have to play aggressive myself if I'm going to win."
The Spanish player beat Tsonga in their only previous meeting -- in straight sets in the third round of last year's U.S. Open.
Nadal, the only player to beat Roger Federer at the last 10 Grand Slams, doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself, but realizes at the age of 21, he has time on his side.
"Winning a Grand Slam is very difficult ... on grass, on clay ... on ice," he said, smiling. "Last year I tried my best, this year I'll try my best. If not this year, next year, next year, next year.
"If I'm in the final on Sunday, it's going to be a dream ... to start the season like this."