Nadal stays king of his clay empire

June 16, 2019

We had all been looking for reasons to believe that Rafael Nadal might not be the shoo-in for this year’s Roland Garros. He was obliterated by Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo, and overpowered by...

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We had all been looking for reasons to believe that Rafael Nadal might not be the shoo-in for this year’s Roland Garros. He was obliterated by Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo, and overpowered by Dominic Thiem in Barcelona – both semifinals. While those two had multiple wins over the World No 2, in Madrid Nadal lost at the same stage to Stefanos Tsitsipas – a man who had never beaten him anywhere, let alone on clay.

While Nadal’s clay record is unreal (436-39, 92%), and he has unprecedented number of titles at all events on the surface – Monte Carlo (11), Barcelona (11), Roma (9), Madrid (5) – it is at Roland Garros that his feats become supernatural. He has only ever lost two matches there (93-2) – the only two best-of-five matches on the surface he has ever lost. So while his performances in the lead up to the French Open historically wary from impressive to domineering, he is always the overwhelming favourite for Roland Garros.

Nadal’s only two defeats at the French Open came to Robin Soderling – a fourth round defeat in 2009, under heavy conditions, knee troubles, and an unprecedented hitting display that is touted as the greatest upset in tennis history – and Novak Djokovic – a quarterfinal loss in 2015, which was a faceoff between the Spaniard at his nadir and the Serb at his zenith.

In 2016, Nadal withdrew from the third round with a wrist injury, following his best ever start to the French Open. He owns every other Roland Garros title since 2005.

The tally now stands at 12 following Sunday’s triumph over Thiem, which is the highest number of wins for any player – man or woman – at a single Grand Slam. In the men’s game no one has more than eight at one event – Roger Federer at Wimbledon.

There is a wide spanning consensus that Nadal’s 12 French Open titles is one tennis record that will never be broken, especially given that it comes at the Grand Slam event that’s the toughest to win and takes the most toll on you, physically and mentally.

Nothing, however, can be discounted in sports, and you never know there might be another paranormal athlete in the offing.

But given that none of the active tennis players has even two titles at Roland Garros, with Nadal possessing four times more French Opens than the rest of the field put together (3), it’s safe to say the Spaniard’s records on clay – and more specifically at Roland Garros – won’t be touched any time soon.

The more pertinent question is how long will his reign continue at the French Open. Given that he’s a more complete player than ever, and his only losses at Roland Garros have come under freakish circumstances, the only way Nadal will be dethroned is when he hangs up his crown himself.

There’s always talk of Nadal chasing down Federer’s Grand Slam tally of 20 every time the Spaniard wins a major. Now at 18 majors, Nadal is within two of the Swiss maestro for the first time ever.

And yet Federer’s tally, or the much deliberated GOAT billing, isn’t what Nadal appears to play for. Each of his seasons, and in turn his entire career, is focused on preserving and prolonging his clay empire.

If one asked Nadal, who has 12 of his 18 majors at the French, if he’d swap one of his Roland Garros titles for another crown at the Australian Open – where he has only won once, and lost four finals – the Spaniard would probably say No.

This isn’t to say he won’t be eying Federer’s Grand Slam tally, or won’t work as hard to win the other three majors – Nadal puts every ounce of his energy every time he has a raquet in his hand. He’ll go all out till he calls it a day, but knows that it’s on clay that he is untouched royalty.

Having said that, one more Australian Open title would complete the double career Grand Slam for Nadal – which makes those four final defeats all the more agonising. One more Wimbledon title would make him the only player in the history of sport to have at least three majors on each of the three surfaces. Next month at SW19, Nadal would be hoping to take another tilt at the Grand Slam he last won nine years ago, having come so close last year.

Even so, while there’s history as incentive at other events, the greatest question with regards to Nadal remains: how many more titles at Roland Garros can he win?

Given that the Spaniard has already defied everything that the sport has ever seen, it is he who will choose to redefine the extent those limits. But it’s safe to say he’ll be the favourite at the French till the day he shows up at Roland Garros.

Even though Federer is still contending for majors at almost 38 years of age, one has to wonder how many more years Nadal, 33, has in him, given his style of play.

There’s a chance Nadal might call it a day the day he loses his third match at Roland Garros. That would be the day one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports would see its final dawn. Don’t expect it to happen any time soon though.


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