Nadal’s victory in Paris puts him alongside Rod Laver and Borg with 11 Grand Slam titles. (File photo)
Bjorn Rune Borg was the best clay court player in the 70s and early 80s. After his retirement, Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl were the best on this slow surface. Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier revelled in the 90s, followed by Gustavo Kuerten in the late 90s and early part of the millennium. From winning his maiden title in 2005 to surpassing Borg’s six French Open titles with a pulsating victory over Novak Djokovic in the 2012 final, Rafael Nadal has dominated the tournament. Seven French Open titles and 36 titles overall on clay makes the Spaniard the best-ever player on this surface. His 52-1 win-loss record at Roland Garros in the last eight years will be hard to beat. After Nadal, Borg has the best record on red dirt (48 wins, two losses) and was tough to beat on clay (28 titles) during his time. It’s difficult to compare two different eras but Nadal and Borg were the two best players on clay in the last 40 years.
Nadal’s victory in Paris puts him alongside Rod Laver and Borg with 11 Grand Slam titles. The three leading Grand Slam winners are: Roger Federer (16), Pete Sampras (14) and Roy Emerson (12). At 26, the Spaniard looks the best bet to chase the Swiss record even though it looks like a difficult proposition.
From being a clay court exponent in the initial part of his career, Nadal has evolved into an all-court player, winning titles on the three major surfaces: clay, hard and grass. He is also one of the seven players to achieve a Career Slam along with Don Budge, Fred Perry, Laver, Emerson, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer.
The emergence of Nadal reduced the domination of Federer, who was winning most of the tournaments till 2007. In 2006 and 2007, Nadal won the French Open defeating Federer, while Federer overcame Nadal to win Wimbledon in the same years. His victory over the Swiss in one of the most gripping 2008 Wimbledon final was Spaniard’s first Major victory outside clay. He followed it up by winning the Olympic gold in Beijing and ended the year as No 1 for the first time.
Nadal-Federer rivalry took the game of tennis to dizzying heights. The Spaniard holds a better head-to-head record against Federer (18-10, 5-2 in Grand Slam finals). Nadal has posed the biggest problem to Federer with his top-spin forehand and tremendous mental strength.
Nadal’s strengths are his big forehand, return of serve, retrieving ability and tremendous will to win. Added to that, he has become more aggressive from the baseline and has improved his volleying skills over the years.
The only concern for Nadal has been his wobbly knee, which has troubled him on and off. After winning his first Australian Open title in 2009, which made Federer cry, he suffered a crisis of confidence in the second half of 2009. After going down to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of French Open which remains his only loss till date, he pulled out of Wimbledon as defending champion with the knee continuing to trouble him. For the first time there were doubts whether Nadal could be the same player again. Nadal recovered to compete in the US Open. He fared reasonably before being overpowered by Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinal.
If 2009 was painful, the year 2010 was Nadal’s annus mirabilis as he won three Grand Slam titles. He regained his confidence by winning the French Open with his knee holding up.
Nadal followed it up by winning Wimbledon with impressive victories over Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych in the semifinal and final. His dismantling of Murray and Berdych saw Nadal at his best. He put them under a lot of pressure with his accurate groundstrokes and timely forays to the net. Murray
was outsmarted, while Berdych could not keep up the pace with the Spaniard.
With his aggressive game working wonders, Nadal bagged his maiden US Open to complete a Career Slam. It was a remarkable turnaround for the Majorcan who showed he is equally adept on the quick hard courts of New York. With the phenomenal rise of Djokovic in 2011, the Big Two became Big Three. Nadal had to contend with the Serb ascendancy. Nadal and Djokovic contested two Grand Slam finals—Wimbledon and US Open, with the Serb winning both the matches. Nadal found the aggressive Djokovic too hot to handle. The pertinent point being Nadal was being outhit by the Serb from the baseline in long rallies, which no player had done before. Added to that his improved serve and high fitness-levels that made him an insurmountable hurdle for Nadal, who lost in six straight finals.
Nadal’s coach has been his uncle Toni for long time. He was known to be a hard taskmaster and there was a perception his influence was overbearing and affecting Rafa’s game. However, Nadal has stuck to him in difficult times and made it work.
The start of 2012 showed Nadal had overcome the psychological barrier against Djokovic even though he lost a nerve-racking Australian Open, which lasted close to six hours. Djokovic’s steely nerves helped him beat Rafa for the seventh straight time in finals.
The start of clay season helped the left-handed Nadal end his seven-match losing streak against Djokovic. He twice defeated the Serb in the finals (Monte Carlo and Rome) before the start of second Grand Slam of the season. With confidence restored, Nadal went on to win in Roland Garros dropping only one set in the entire tournament—against Djokovic—in the summit clash.
Seven titles in Paris, two Wimbledon crowns, one title each in Australian Open and US Open has assured him of a place in tennis history. With age on his side it will not be a surprise if he ends up with the most number of Grand Slam titles when he hangs up his boots.
KNOW YOUR NADAL
World Ranking: 2
Turned pro: 2001
Coach: Toni Nadal
Career singles titles: 50
Grand Slam singles titles: 11 (Australian Open 2009; French Open 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012; Wimbledon 2008, 2010; US Open 2010)