Nadal chasing further history in Paris

Spaniard could take sole posession of the men's all-time record of most Grand Slams won with victory this fortnight

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT
 - Chris Oddo

As Rafael Nadal ticked the century mark in Paris by winning a record 13th title on the terre battue last autumn, his 100th win at his favourite stomping grounds was capped when he swept his biggest rival Novak Djokovic in the 2020 final. 

It was a coronation derived from a crisis.

Nadal had entered Roland-Garros undercooked and lacking confidence, his expectations perhaps as low as they’d ever been at the start of a Paris fortnight. But there he was at the podium two weeks later, a teardrop running the contour of his masked face as he sank his teeth into the Coupe des Mousquetaires. 

“Doubts are part of the life,” the Mallorcan would later reflect. “For me doubts are good because they mean that you don't consider yourself too good.

“Honestly, one month and a half ago if you tell me you're going to have this trophy with you again, I will say: ‘This year will probably be too difficult.’” 

Difficult - like impossible - is not enough to stop Nadal from storming the gates of Roland-Garros history, year after year.

Back in Paris just eight months later, confidence at full throttle after earning two titles on clay this spring, it’s hard to imagine anything derailing the Spaniard as he aims for the - previously - unthinkable - a 14th Roland-Garros title and a 21st major crown.

“We all know Rafa is the huge favourite,” two-time champion and Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier said in a conference call this week. “Rafa has every right to be the most optimistic of all - even though he'll doubt it more than anybody, ironically.” 

No matter the conditions, the backdrop or the level of competition, there’s never any question about Nadal’s supremacy on clay, especially at his personal proving ground in Paris. 

Rafael Nadal, Roland-Garros 2021, practice© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

“In my opinion, to play Rafa here on the Chatrier court, it's still the toughest challenge,” two-time Roland-Garros finalist Dominic Thiem told reporters on Friday. 

Thiem, a massive sports fan himself, admits he’s never seen anything quite like the King of Clay rampaging inside of Court Philippe-Chatrier. 

“I guess also outside of tennis, it's probably one of the most difficult things ever, in sports in general, to beat him here on this court. His 102 matches are incredible, and one of the biggest achievements ever in sport.” 

His biggest rival sees it similarly. Top-seeded Djokovic, the 2016 Roland-Garros champion, has had more success than any player against Nadal on clay, and hopes to challenge him this year for the title, but after falling to Nadal in last year’s final, he could only praise the Spaniard. 

“No holding him back it seems like. It's amazing,” he said in Paris last autumn. “I mean, he lost two times in his entire career. Winning 13 times, there's not much you can say. All the superlatives you can use, he deserves them.” 

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Nadal, who won the title without dropping a set for the fourth time last year, will open his campaign against world No.62 Alexei Popyrin of Australia.

Drawn into Djokovic’s half of the draw, the No.3 seed is slated to face Andrey Rublev in the quarter-finals, followed by the top-ranked Serbian in the semis, if the seeds hold. 

“I need to be ready for it,” Nadal said of his opening round.

Winning what would be an all-time record 21st Grand Slam men's singles title (he and Federer are currently tied atop the men's leaderboard with 20 each) shapes up as a difficult task for a man who will turn 35 next week, but Nadal has a way of turning potential pitfalls into crowning achievements in Paris. 

“I need to keep practicing the next couple of days, try to be in the best shape possible for the beginning," he said. "But I know every round is tough, I respect every opponent always.”