Nine appearances, eight titles. Ten matches against Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, ten wins. Playing Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros is perhaps the greatest challenge there is. His victims over the years tell us what it was like to face him, and a certain Swede gives us the magic formula on how to beat him. Will someone follow in Söderling’s footsteps in 2014?
Statistics can prove anything, but in the case of Rafael Nadal, they simply prove how good he is. 288 wins and only 21 losses on clay throughout his career. 43 titles on the surface, eight of them at Roland Garros which is by far and away a record, and all in a mere nine appearances. And then there is the more emotional side of things – the impression of inevitability when the steam-roller starts coming towards you on the Paris clay. When Nicolas Almagro had to face it in 2008, all he could do after a crushing 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 defeat in the quarter-finals was shrug his shoulders and tell Marian Vajda, Novak Djokovic’s coach who had been sent out to find out what had happened: "I’m sorry, but when the ball bounces six metres off the ground, I just don’t know how to play it".
Everyone who has had to face Hurricane Rafa at Roland Garros can share this feeling of impotence. Even Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have both lost five times in as many attempts, des- pite occasionally getting the better of him in the ATP Masters 1000 tournaments in the run-up to the French Open. What makes the difference? Why have two of the greatest players of their era managed to beat the king of clay at Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid and Hamburg but not Paris?
"For the simple reason that at Roland Garros, the match is bound to be longer. Beating him in a best-of-three is hard enough as it is, but best of five sets turns it into mission impossible."
Paul-Henri Mathieu knows what he is talking about. In 2006, he played one of the best matches of his career against the Majorcan who only had one French Open title to his name at the time. The result was a titanic struggle which Mathieu lost in four sets stretched over an incredible five hours. And once the Spaniard had levelled at one set all, Mathieu already had a sneaking suspicion that the match was already done and dusted. PHM battled all the way, but all he did was delay the inevitable.
"Over five sets, as soon as you drop a set against him, be it the first or the second, it doesn’t matter, you know that he’ll end up having the last laugh, however long it takes," the former world No.12 continues. "He wears you down. That’s the main difference with a Masters 1000 match where you only need to win two sets. When you play Nadal on clay, you need to be on a higher plane to beat him. And being on a higher plane for an hour and a half or two hours and winning two sets is doable, it’s just about possible, but being in the zone for three or more hours to win three sets… You can’t play a whole match like that. You’ll stumble at some point."
Jarkko Nieminen was one of the victims in the Majorcan’s incredible 2008 cam- paign when he only dropped 41 games en route to the title, which was not far off the record set by Björn Borg at the height of his powers when he only lost 32. The Finn was brushed aside 6-1, 6-3, 6-1, opponent number three of seven as Rafa strolled to the trophy. "He demands more of you than anyone else," says Nieminen. "He’s got more in terms of stamina so the only choice you have is to keep on hitting winner after winner to try to avoid falling into the trap. This alternative is just as exhausting though at the end of the day, both physically and mentally, and if you get the slightest attack wrong, he’ll be ready to step in from the baseline and pick it off. He is the best player in the world when it comes to the intensity he demands of you and the ability to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses. Once you start flagging, he’s there to pounce. On clay in general and at Roland Garros in particular where it’s best of five, he’s unstoppable."
The difference between an ATP Masters 1000 and a Grand Slam is like asking a middle-distance runner to tackle a marathon. And as well as the number of sets, there is also the setting to be taken into account. Philippe Chatrier Court has become Rafael Nadal’s tailor-made theatre of dreams. With its extra yards of space both behind the baseline and also between the tramlines and the spectators’ boxes, it is one of the largest tennis courts in the world and is the ideal venue for the Matador from Manacor, giving him endless possibilities in which to run, run and run again as well as playing the angles cross-court. Ivan Ljubicic, who lost to the lord of the manor in the semis in 2006 and the fourth round in 2011, explains that "these playing conditions are absolutely ideal for Rafa’s game. On Centre Court he has all the room he needs to demonstrate every aspect of his defensive play. When he’s on form, it’s virtually impossible to play him on this court."
"The depth on Centre Court give you so much space behind the baseline that it’s extre- mely difficult to get past him as he has so much room to run, get his racquet round the ball and find different angles on defence," adds Mathieu, whose 2006 match with Nadal was one of the highlights of his career. "Attacking shots end up being returned more often than they are from elsewhere on the court, in particularly from way back. You have to try again two, three, four times just to win a point. And of course you can’t make any mistakes, and you can’t go too far behind the baseline otherwise you’ll end up running left and right… The depth of Centre Court benefits defenders more than attackers, and so yes, it definitely plays in his favour."
While it may be huge, the court can appear tiny in the eyes of the player who is charged with wearing out his inexhaustible opponent. How does it feel to be caught in the tarantula’s web, knowing that the Majorcan has only ever gone on to lose four five-set matches after he has won the first set, with none of those defeats coming on clay, of course? Frustration and despair are often the order of the day. "At all costs you can’t give in to negative thoughts before you get out onto the court," the Frenchman continues. "You need to be prepared for it to be long and tough, and try to focus on the present and just take each point as it comes. Even if it’s not easy, because you know that you’re going to have to cause an upset just to take a set off him, but you can’t go out on court having let your head drop and thinking about how few games you’re likely to win. And of course in certain cases, this is easier said than done …"
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