Rafael Nadal, evergreen on the red dust
One down, two to go? With his victory in Monte-Carlo, Rafael Nadal not only kick-started his clay season, but he also chalked up the first of three "Décimas" (tenth crowns at a specific tournament) that are within his grasp this spring. The other places where he can reach this milestone are Barcelona and… Roland-Garros. These double-figure tallies are a testament to the Spaniard's exceptional dominance and – even more impressively in light of the precedents – his exceptional longevity on the surface that he has made his own for the last 12 years.
Lest we forget, by the time he was Nadal's current age, Björn Borg – previously the Open Era's top clay-court poster boy – had been in the wilderness for five years after succumbing to burnout. On the other hand, just weeks before his 31st birthday, "Rafa" keeps racking up titles and pursuing records on "his" surface. While Borg was head and shoulders above the rest on the red stuff for seven years before losing his motivation and dramatically dropping off the radar at the age of 26, Nadal has pushed the envelope with both the breadth and length of his stranglehold, living up to his "king of clay" billing to some extent every single season for over a decade.
By easing past compatriot Albert Ramos (6-1, 6-3) on Sunday to capture his 10th Monte-Carlo Masters 1000 crown, 12 years after he first lifted the trophy in the Principality, Nadal also brought up his half-century of ATP clay-court titles. In the process, he officially became the most decorated dirt-baller of the Open Era, breaking the tie he had been locked in with Guillermo Vilas since tasting glory in Barcelona for the ninth time.
It is remarkable that we are sitting here talking of "Décimas" (ten titles at a same tournament) – Monaco represented the first of a potential hat-trick of such landmarks for "Rafa" this year, with Barcelona and Roland-Garros next on this particular hitlist – on clay, a supremely demanding surface which is renowned for chewing up and spitting out even its greatest exponents faster than any other. This is borne out by a cursory glance at the roll call of other men to have won three or more titles at the Porte d'Auteuil in the Open Era:
- Bjorn Borg – 7 years at the top on clay (1974-81)
- Ivan Lendl – 9 years (1981-89)
- Mats Wilander – 7 years (1982-88)
- Gustavo Kuerten – 5 years (1997-01)
Whereas Borg and Wilander wilted mentally midway through their 20s, Kuerten – the last genuine dominator on clay before Nadal, with his three Roland-Garros triumphs (in 1997, 2000 and 2001) – was beset by injury from the age of 25 onwards and vanished from the scene for good before entering his fourth decade.
Meanwhile, having won his maiden title on terre battue as an 18-year-old in 2004 (in Sopot), Nadal has achieved the considerable feat of combining precocity and endurance. He continues to swell his trophy cabinets with his 31st birthday around the corner… despite himself having to contend with a string of injuries that have slowed him down over the years. The red dirt seems to have been a fail-safe tonic for the Majorcan, whose absences during the spring clay swing can be counted on one hand, even when he has had extended layoffs elsewhere.
Never very comfortable talking about his longevity (and, by extension, about the end of his career), the Manacor-born ace has always weighed his words when venturing to broach the topic, as he did at the Montreal Masters 1000 in 2015. "Obviously I have more years behind me than ahead of me, but I'm taking it one day at a time. […] I'm pretty sure I won't play until I'm 39! These things are part and parcel of any player's career, but I'm motivated to keep going," Nadal told Canadian newspaper La Presse in the midst of a season in which he struggled more than ever on court, his difficulties even translating into a relative paucity of success on the dust (he won just two titles on clay, in Buenos Aires and Hamburg, his worst tally since his early days on tour).
"There'll be no celebrations. There will be time to celebrate after Roland-Garros – if I have something to celebrate then, that is!"
"People often ask me when the end will come. I always say the same thing: when it is time, I'll know. When I get up in the morning and no longer have the motivation to go and train, to keep improving, then it'll be time to call it a day. However, until that day arrives, I'll go all out," added the Spaniard. He duly conquered his 2015 demons through weeks of tireless efforts to refine his serve and backhand, with his forehand – formerly famed for its unerring depth and ferocity – increasingly letting him down.
The Majorcan addressed the subject again after his tenth Monte-Carlo triumph: "Everyone manages their body differently. I've had injuries, but despite that I've always maintained my passion and the drive to work hard and fight for the things that motivate me. Growing older isn't a problem so long as you have your health. If you don't, that's when you pack up and go home."
It was only on the cusp of his 30s that Nadal first showed real frailties on a surface where he had not just dominated, but had exerted unprecedented psychological pressure due to his relentless style of play. Indeed, prior to his 2015 woes, the Spaniard had reigned with an iron fist: before him, only that man Borg had managed to go entire clay seasons unbeaten, twice capping those runs by prevailing at Roland-Garros without losing a set (in 1978 and 1980). But, again, what truly sets Nadal apart is the way in which he has stood the test of time, his historic exploits now spanning a full 12 years, from 2005 to 2017.
Following a 2016 season blighted by a wrist injury that forced him to withdraw from Roland-Garros before his third-round match, Nadal has dug deep and found the technical, mental and physical reserves to launch another renaissance. And, after conquering Monaco again, there is no question of the ogre of the ochre resting on his laurels, with the likes of Barcelona and – above all – Roland-Garros still to come. On the contrary, where "Rafa" is concerned, victory has always served only to fuel his hunger for more wins. As he put it, "I'll be back in training tomorrow in Barcelona. I'll savour this moment, but there'll be no celebrations. There will be time to celebrate after Roland-Garros – if I have something to celebrate then, that is!"