Fourteen Roland Garros titles obviously says a lot about Rafa; 18 straight years in the Top 10 might say even more
Avery long era ended on Monday, when Rafael Nadal dropped out of the Top 10. Normally this kind of thing isn’t news. Even if you’re a certified legend like Rafa, all it takes is one injury to send you tumbling from that rarefied ranking tier. The computer doesn’t know or care how famous you are.
Somehow, for nearly 18 years, that never happened to Nadal. He entered the Top 10 for the first time on April 24, 2005, and didn’t leave until March 20, 2023. That’s 912 consecutive weeks—124 more than the next best male player in that regard, Jimmy Connors. Roger Federer comes in third with 734, Ivan Lendl fourth with 619, Pete Sampras fifth with 565, and Novak Djokovic sixth with 555. That’s right, even Federer and Djokovic had their ranking dips. Federer’s streak ended in 2016 after knee surgery. Djokovic’s came to a halt in 2017 because of elbow problems.
Of the three, though, Nadal has missed the most playing time. His knees, his foot, his wrist, his abs, his hip, his hamstring: You name it, he has probably hurt it. But until now he always had a reserve of ranking points large enough to keep him afloat for the 52 weeks that they remain on your record.
How did he amass those points? He did it by winning at least one major title, usually at Roland Garros, in 15 different seasons, the most among men in the Open era. He did it by winning 36 Masters 1000 titles, second to Djokovic. He did it by winning 82.9 percent of his matches, also second to Djokovic. When Nadal played, he won; he rarely, if ever, had an extended run of early-round losses.
He did it most all by making sure that, whatever ailed him the rest of the season, he was recovered and ready for the clay swing. During that two-month period, he piled up wins, titles and points with metronomic and unflagging efficiency. Nadal has won 91.3 percent of his matches on clay, the highest of any man on any surface. In 2012, when he won for the seventh time in Paris and passed Bjorn Borg for the most men’s titles there, he was rightfully crowned the King of Clay. Then he went on and won seven more French Opens. He missed the tournament once, as an 18-year-old in 2004, and didn’t miss it again.
Still, Rafa’s record isn’t only about his clay prowess. After all, his most recent Roland Garros title, from last June, still counts toward his ranking, and it isn’t enough to keep him in the Top 10. As dominant as he has been on clay, he could never be tagged as a surface specialist. From 2006 to 2011, he made five Wimbledon finals. In 2009, he reached the first of his six Australian Open finals. In his 30s, he won his third and fourth US Open titles. Along with Djokovic, he’s the only man in the Open Era to win all four major titles twice.
As dominant as he has been on clay, he could never be tagged as a surface specialist.
“Is he a Top 10 player?” is the question that’s asked of every up-and-coming tennis talent. It’s a basic standard of excellence, and to climb that high even for one week is an achievement to tell the grandkids about. Nobody, I’m pretty sure, has ever asked, “Could he be a Top 10 player every week for 17 straight years?”
In that sense, Nadal’s record is one more example of the outsized—bonkers, really—accomplishments that tennis has witnessed in the 21st century. They go well beyond the 20-plus Grand Slam titles Serena and the Big Three have won. Federer, to cite on example, reached the semifinals or better at 23 straight Grand Slam events at one stage, more than doubling the previous record. Djokovic has won all four majors twice, and all nine Masters 1000s twice. Federer’s men’s-record 237 straight weeks at No. 1, and Djokovic’s 380 weeks overall look untouchable for the foreseeable future—or at least until Carlos Alcaraz turns 25.
Nadal has a few bonkers ranking records of his own. He’s the only man to be ranked No. 1 in three different decades, and he has spent more time in the Top 2—a colossal 596 weeks—than any other man. But the consecutive weeks in the Top 10 record may be the most characteristic of him. Like everything with Rafa, it’s partly about his clay-court dominance. But staying in the Top 10, every single week, for so many years, is also about all-around excellence, about never taking a match off, about never suffering through slumps, about beating the opponents you should beat 99 percent of the time, about proving yourself over and over again, about defying age.
Fourteen Roland Garros titles obviously says a lot about Rafa; 18 straight years in the Top 10 might say even more. –Tennis.com