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Decima duels: the matches that made Nadal a legend

By Michael Beattie   on   Sunday 11 June 2017
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As Rafael Nadal completes his historic Decima at Roland-Garros, we look back at 10 critical matches from his 13 campaigns in Paris. Tell us your favourites in the comments below...

2005 semi-final: Nadal d. Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3

Rafael Nadal arrived in Paris for the first time on a 17-match clay-court winning streak, having collected titles in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Rome on the eve of Roland-Garros. The run saw the No.5 seed installed as the tournament favourite, and he looked to make good on the billing with a run to the final four. But the first real test of his Grand Slam credentials came against world No.1 Roger Federer, against whom he had won and lost over the previous two seasons in Miami. The Swiss had lost just twice since August the previous year, but Nadal proved too savvy on the terre battue, both men digging deep mentally and tactically but Federer making the errors at crucial moments. In a quirky wrinkle for the 18-time Grand Slam champion, it was his second consecutive major semi-final defeat to a player celebrating their birthday, having lost to Marat Safin at the same stage of Australian Open 2005.

2005 final: Nadal d. Puerta 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5

“For the first time, I cried after winning a match – it has never happened to me before,” said an ecstatic Nadal after battling to victory at Roland-Garros on his tournament debut. The youngest men’s Grand Slam winner since Michael Chang’s 1989 Roland-Garros triumph aged 17, Nadal came through arguably the toughest of his nine finals on Court Philippe-Chatrier against fellow left-hander Mariano Puerta of Argentina, who had focused on nothing but clay following his recent return from a doping ban. In the wake of his three titles in the lead-up to Roland-Garros and victory over Federer in the semis, Nadal was installed as the overwhelming favourite, but Puerta pushed him all the way, holding three points to force a fifth set before Nadal’s superior footwork rescued the situation before one final error from the Argentine sealed a famous win.

2006 third round: Nadal d. Mathieu 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4

Nadal almost choked on his return to Paris as defending champion – literally. Looking confused and scared as he served for the third set, the Spaniard returned to his chair and called for the trainer. A bite of his banana taken at the change of ends had lodged in his throat, and he needed help. “I was getting pretty nervous and a little frightened,” he said. “It wasn't that I couldn't breathe, but I felt something strange.” That wasn’t all Nadal had to deal with in the course of a four-hour showdown against 29th-seeded Paul-Henri Mathieu and a baying 15,000-strong crowd on Chatrier. The Frenchman, one of five beaten by Nadal during his Roland-Garros career, stayed with Nadal until a double fault and three unforced errors at 4-4 in the fourth left the 20-year-old to serve out the win.

2007 quarter-final: Nadal d. Moya 6-4, 6-3, 6-0

A decade before Carlos Moya took his place in Nadal’s camp at Roland-Garros, he stood across the net from his fellow Mallorcan in Paris. At 31 years old, the same age Nadal is now, the 1998 champion had battled his way back into the world’s top 20 and reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final in three years, only to run into his ‘little brother’ – and summarily become his 19th Roland-Garros victim. The 21-year-old won 16 of the 24 points that lasted at least 10 strokes as he surged home, taking the last eight games en route to a ruthless victory. “I couldn’t do much about it,” admitted Moya, who lost in the first round in his final appearance in Paris a year later.

2008 final: Nadal d. Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0

Nadal’s performance in the 2008 final over Roger Federer came as close to perfection as anything ever produced in a Roland-Garros final. It was the most one-sided scoreline in a final on Philippe-Chatrier Court since 1977; that it came against Federer, chasing his career Grand Slam in Paris, only served to accentuate Nadal’s prowess. “To come up with a performance like this shows what a great champion he is,” said Federer, who could appreciate the pressures placed upon Nadal in his bid to become a four-time champion. “He no longer plays short balls as he did in the past, and you can no longer attack him on his forehand. He was just much stronger than me today.” The victory wrapped up the first of two Roland-Garros campaigns won by Nadal without dropping a set prior to 2017. The two would meet a month later in the 2008 Wimbledon final, where the Spaniard emerged victorious for the first time at SW19.

2009 fourth round: Soderling d. Nadal 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-4, 7-6(2)

“The impossible happened on the red clay at Court Philippe-Chatrier on Sunday,” one reporter wrote in the aftermath. After 31 matches without defeat in Paris, Rafael Nadal fell in the fourth round at Roland-Garros to Sweden’s Robin Soderling in four seismic sets - an Act of Sod. There was spice in the match before a ball had been struck, with the duo trading barbs at Wimbledon two years previously after Soderling had mimicked Nadal’s penchant for taking his time and adjusting his underwear, but it was the barrage of flat forehands and fearless serving that did for an ailing Nadal eight years ago. The Spaniard retreated to Mallorca for work on his knees before withdrawing from Wimbledon on the eve of the tournament.

2010. Rafael Nadal and Nicola Pietrangeli
2010 final: Nadal d. Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4

Soderling’s fourth-round victory over Nadal proved to be a Kennedy moment for the sport, so for Nadal to return to the final a year later to meet the man who had snapped his perfect run added an extra level of intrigue to the final. In pursuit of his fifth Roland-Garros crown, Nadal turned in a defensive masterclass before going on the front foot to truly take the match away from Soderling, consolidating a break at 3-2 in the second set thanks in part to a magnificent point in game six. Having returned a smash, he worked his way into the net and knifed a volley to the delight of the Chatrier crowd. “I played my best match against you – if not, it's going to be impossible to beat you,” Nadal told Soderling during the trophy ceremony following “the most emotional day in my career.” Victory – his second Roland-Garros title claimed without dropping a set – propelled Nadal back to the top of the ATP rankings.

2011 first round: Nadal d. Isner 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-4

Shortly after Nadal booked his place in the 2017 Roland-Garros final, American duo Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick took to Twitter to breathe a sigh of relief that they were not in the firing line any more. “Thank God I didn't ever play Rafa on clay,” Fish wrote. “I did,” Roddick replied. “It sucked.” But it was their compatriot John Isner who was the first man to take Nadal to five sets in Paris – and in the first round, no less. The towering world No.39 hammered serves and showed soft hands at the net to grab two tie-breaks before Nadal raised his game to close out victory in four hours. “What it came down to is the way he played in the fourth and fifth sets,” said Isner, the only player to lead Nadal after three sets at Roland-Garros and lose. “I haven't seen tennis like that ever. That's why he's No.1 in the world and one of the greatest players ever.”

Nadal chases after a lob from Djokovic. The king of clay managed a between-the-legs return lob that Nole subsequently smashed into the net.
2013 semi-final: Nadal d. Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7

Fifty times Nadal has met Novak Djokovic ahead of this year’s Roland-Garros, but few contests match their 2013 semi-final in Paris for sheer knife-edge drama over four hours, 37 minutes. It was a match laden with more twists than a spy novel – none more so than ‘the smash’, when Djokovic’s rush of blood to the head at 4-3 and deuce in the fifth set saw him stumble into the net while racing forward to bury the ball into an open court, only to touch the net. Reprieved, Nadal held, then held his footing as Djokovic began to lose his own on the drying windy court. Two days later, Nadal returned to beat compatriot David Ferrer for the eighth of his nine Roland-Garros titles. “It was an unbelievable match to be part of,” said 2016 champion Djokovic, who became just the second man to beat Nadal in Paris two years later. “I congratulate my opponent because he showed courage at the right moments. A break down in the fifth, he played some great shots from the baseline. That's why he's a champion.”

Dominic Thiem
2017 semi-final: Nadal d. Thiem 6-4, 6-3, 6-0

One year on from the disappointment of his withdrawal before the third round with a wrist injury in Paris – “according to the doctor, that would be impossible," Nadal said, "as there is a 100 per cent chance something will break” – Nadal returned to Roland-Garros in 2017 in vintage form. With three titles from six finals under his belt and a first Grand Slam final appearance in three years at the Australian Open in January, the 31-year-old dropped just 29 games en route to the final, including just one over three sets against Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili. But it was his demolition of Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals that underlined Nadal’s pre-eminence on the surface once more. It was the fourth meeting in six weeks between the surging Austrian and the battled-hardened Spaniard, who had lost their previous meeting in the quarter-finals in Rome. But he was never in danger as the sun set in Paris, curbing the 23-year-old’s firepower and proving too canny in the cat-and-mouse exchanges to post one last runaway win en route to the title.

Next Article: May 2006: when Nadal eclipsed Vilas
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