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Losses few and far between for the King of Clay

By Dan Imhoff   on   Saturday 10 June 2017
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Rafael Nadal has only fallen short in just three of his 12 Roland-Garros campaigns. Relive who – and what –  derailed his runs.

Roland-Garros defeats are rare as hen’s teeth for Rafael Nadal. And with each year his dominance is prolonged or revived the significance of those losses is only compounded.

The honour roll engraved on the Coupe des Mousquetaires has his name duplicated more than any other – nine times in the past 12 years. 

Stan Wawrinka stands between the Spaniard and his bid for La Decima on Sunday. In 2015 the Swiss joined Roger Federer in 2009 and Novak Djokovic last year as the only three to break up the run since a 19-year-old Nadal first sunk his teeth into the handle of the grand old trophy in 2005 – yet none were responsible for ending the King of Clay’s campaigns that same year.

In 2009, the Spaniard was bidding to win a record fifth successive Roland-Garros title when he ran into the world No.25 Robin Soderling in the fourth round.

Nadal had claimed lead-in events on clay in Monte-Carlo, Rome and Barcelona and was riding a perfect 31-0 match record at Roland-Garros. The 6ft 4in Swede was not expected to trouble Nadal having salvaged just one game from him on the clay in Rome.

But in his first outing in the fourth round at a major, the Swede swung at will to spring a monumental 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 upset.

Nadal wasn’t at his brutal best on the clay but that was largely due to Soderling’s lights-out ball-striking.

Nadal with the 2008 trophy

“His game didn’t surprise me, I was more surprised by mine,” an agitated Nadal said at the time. “It was my fault more than his. Well sure, he did well, he did very well. But I think I didn’t play my best tennis.

“I played very short and I couldn't attack. I made it easy for him to play at his level. But I lost. I was not calm enough to face the important points, so I had to fight. But sometimes fighting is not enough.”

Nadal had been looking to pass Bjorn Borg’s record of four straight Roland-Garros titles in 2009. He would eventually achieve the feat with five straight crowns between 2010 and 2014, and later extended his winning streak to 39 matches before Novak Djokovic snapped his run with a 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 victory in the 2015 quarter-finals.

It handed Nadal only his second loss in 72 matches at Roland-Garros.

Djokovic had arrived in Paris as the runaway world No.1, while Nadal was a shadow of the force he had been in previous years on his preferred surface. The Serbian had barely tasted defeat all season while his opponent was short on confidence, given his struggles to regain full fitness. In the end it was a routine result for Djokovic and Nadal conceded his fight was lacking.

Nadal and Djokovic hug after their quarterfinal match.

“In the third, I am not happy about the way I tried,” he said. “When you play against an opponent that is winning almost every match like Novak and you are not playing consistent during the whole match, then [losing] is an option.

“It’s not a big surprise. I didn’t win enough before here. It’s something that could happen when you see the draw. I lost in 2009 and it’s not the end. I lost in 2015 and it’s not the end.”

For all his time spent on the sidelines recuperating from injuries, Nadal had only missed one Roland-Garros campaign, in what was meant to be his debut in 2004. Having played a full clay-court swing leading in and blitzing his opponents in the opening two rounds in 2016 for the loss of just nine games, there was nothing to suggest anything was amiss.

That was until a forlorn Nadal, cap pulled down and left wrist in a cast, called an unexpected press conference to announce his first mid-slam withdrawal ahead of a third-round clash with countryman Marcel Granollers.

A sombre Nadal said it was “a tough moment, but not the end”. How true those words will ring should his name be engraved on the Coupe des Mousquetaires for a 10th time on Sunday. 

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