Rafael Nadal, the King of kings
Born 3 June 1986 in Manacor (Spain)
As if born to win the French Open, Rafael Nadal has made Roland-Garros his very own kingdom, setting new standards of excellence in Paris, in a tournament where consecutive wins are harder to achieve than anywhere else.
The only man in over a century of French Open tennis to win the title more than four times was Bjorn Borg with six. Then along came Nadal, who needed only eight appearances in the tournament to beat a record that was believed to be unbeatable. Now a nine-time champion on the clay at Porte d’Auteuil, “Rafa” would like nothing more to make that number a perfect ten.
Whether he goes on one day to hit double figures or not, the fact is that Rafa – the nephew of Spanish football legend Miguel Angel Nadal and a one-time protégé of Carlos Moya, the first Mallorcan player to win the French – has surpassed his esteemed elders. With his unlikely exploits, Nadal, who has had but one coach throughout his career – his uncle Toni – has become the figurehead of a golden age of Spanish sport, and has left an indelible mark on Roland-Garros.
Having been forced to withdraw in 2003 (with an elbow injury) and 2004 (with a broken bone in his left ankle), the Mallorcan lifted the trophy for the first time on his debut appearance, in 2005, by which time he had already served notice of his phenomenal talent by winning in Monte Carlo and Rome. In beating the likes of Moya, Ferrero, Coria and Costa – the men who had dominated the clay-court scene in previous seasons – he proved himself to be a one-man revolution.
Two days after his 19th birthday, he overcame Argentina’s Mariano Puerta in a gruelling four-setter, after coming within a point of being taken into a fifth set. In lifting the French for the first time, he laid the foundation for a period of unprecedented domination and created a whole new aesthetic, with his cries of Vamos and his rippling biceps, made even more pronounced by his sleeveless shirts. Then there was the tennis: the frantic chasing down of seemingly lost causes; the jaw-dropping defensive play, converted into sudden attack by stunning passing shots hit at full gallop; the lasso whip forehand, with his arm swinging right round over his head to generate extreme topspin; and the sheer intensity invested in every point, as if it were the last.
Top 5 : Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros
“Rampaging” is no exaggeration. When Rafael Nadal raised aloft that first Musketeers’ Cup, he embarked on an inexorable decade-long domination of the clay-court Grand Slam event, showing virtually no mercy to his opponents.
No one has ever come close to achieving what he has in Paris. His opponents, clay-courts specialists and giants of the game among them, have all been swept aside, including the likes of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, who time and again have bashed fruitlessly way at the Nadal wall and who have seen their Parisian pickings amount to nothing more than a fraction of their considerable successes elsewhere.
Between 2005 and 2015, Rafa – a name that has become such an evocative part of the French Open lexicon – won 72 of the 74 matches he contested, racking up so many records in the process (title wins, consecutive title wins, longest single-surface winning streak, etc, etc) that he unquestionably became the greatest clay-court player of them all.
Read more: 30 for 30: Rafa's Roland-Garros records
Not so much a Big Four in Paris as a Big One
The winner of four straight French Open titles between 2005 and 2008, equalling Borg’s run between 1978 and 1981, the indefatigable Nadal then went and won the event an unprecedented five times in a row from 2010. In the course of that ten-year period, only two players managed to take the Spaniard to a fifth set: John Isner in 2011 and Djokovic two years later. Prior to beating Nadal in the quarters in 2015, the Serb had been his favourite victim at Roland Garros, losing to him six times there between 2006 and 2014.
The oldest member of the so-called Big Four – a quartet completed by Andy Murray – Federer has also had to witness Nadal’s Parisian pomp at first hand. The two great rivals have faced each other more times at the Central Philippe-Chatrier than anywhere else. The most prolific Grand Slam winner of them all has never found a way past Nadal in Paris, however, losing all five of their meetings there in a fixture that has become the clásico of tennis.
The 2008 final saw the Spanish player inflict on the Swiss one of the heaviest defeats of his career (6-1 6-3 6-0), this in a tournament in which Federer was arguably at the peak of his clay-court powers. In lifting that fourth title, Nadal became only the third player, after Ilie Nastase and Borg, to win the French without losing a set, a feat he would repeat in 2010.
Nadal, a decade of Roland-Garros (part.I)
The ultimate clay-court player
On clay, his work ethic and willingness to fight for every point combined beautifully with the skills he had seemed to inherit from former winners. He is as consistent as Borg, has the gamecraft of Ivan Lendl, the patience of Mats Wilander, the left arm of Guillermo Vilas, the topspin of Sergi Bruguera, the strength of Jim Courier and the physique of Thomas Muster.
Over the years, Nadal has had the unique ability over the years to shape and adapt his game, developing his serve and net play to become an all-round champion capable of winning “away from home”, as he has proved in lifting the three other Grand Slam titles.
Given his long-established supremacy on the red clay of Paris, the two losses Nadal has suffered there have both been major events. The second of them came at the hands of Djokovic in 2015, though that reverse pales into insignificance compared to the seismic defeat to Swedish big hitter Robin Soderling on 31 May 2009.
To say that loss shook the clay courts to their foundations would be an understatement, firstly because nobody saw Soderling coming, and secondly because Nadal was seemingly unbeatable on his beloved surface, as the long winning runs that came either side of it showed.
Having now turned 30, the king of clay is locked in a race against time, the most formidable of all opponents and one which has left him to struggle with an increasingly recalcitrant body. It was injury that caused him to pull out in the third round of the French in 2016, when his left wrist – to which he owes so much – gave out on him, putting his quest for la décima, his tenth crown at Roland Garros, on hold.
Nadal, a decade of Roland-Garros (part.II)
Rafael Nadal’s record at Roland-Garros:
- 72 wins (all-time record on Roland-Garros men's singles), 2 defeats.
- 9 titles (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014). He's unbeaten on Roland-Garros final.
- 5 straight singles titles (the all-time record) from 2010 to 2014, with a 39-match winning streak (another all-time record) between the first round in 2010 and the quarter-finals in 2015.
- 12 participations at Roland-Garros prior to 2017 (the first in 2005, the year of his first title).
- 56 matches played on Centre Court (the first in 2005 against Xavier Malisse), the all-time record on Roland-Garros men's singles (and like Steffi Graf in the women's draw).
Notable wins over:
- Roger Federer (semi-final in 2005, and the 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011 finals)
- Novak Djokovic (quarter-final in 2006, semi-finals in 2007, 2008, and 2013, and the 2012 and 2014 finals)
- Andy Murray (semi-finals in 2011 and 2014)
- Stan Wawrinka (quarter-final in 2013)
Rafael Nadal has also won the Australian Open once (2009), Wimbledon twice (2008 and 2010) and the US Open twice (2010 and 2013). He's also a three-time Davis cup winner (2004, 2009, 2011) and a two-time olympic champion: singles in Pékin (2008) and doubles in Rio de Janeiro (2016).
Nadal, a decade of Roland-Garros (part.III)
Elsewhere on clay:
- 9 Monte-Carlo Masters titles (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2016)
- 7 Rome Masters titles (2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013)
- 3 Madrid Masters titles (2010, 2013, 2014)
- 1 Hamburg Masters titles (2008)
- 9 Barcelona titles (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016)
Only Guillermo Vilas has won as many clay-court titles as Nadal’s 49, while the Spaniard also holds the record for the longest winning streak on clay: 81 matches, between 2005 and 2007.