Long Live The King Of Clay! Nadal's Fifteen Year Love Affair With The French Open

The Spaniard is the undisputed king when it comes to success at the French Open
12:00, 06 Oct 2020

A million seconds is eleven and a half days, yet a billion seconds is 31 years and seven months. 

There are some numbers that are too big for the human brain to comprehend. Rafael Nadal’s French Open record is another seemingly unfeasible feat our brains must attempt to come to terms with.

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His record at Roland Garros now reads 97 wins, two losses. If he goes all the way this year, he will not only claim his 13th title, but will hit an unprecedented century of wins in Paris. 100 wins in one Grand Slam, that is simply ridiculous and a feat only Roger Federer has matched in the history of the sport. Given it takes seven victories from first round to champion, you can see how dominant he has been across his career. 

Rocking up to his first French Open back in 2005, a rugged, long-haired heartthrob, the polar opposite to the clean cut poster boy of tennis, Roger Federer, he upset the applecart by beating the Swiss ace in the semi-finals - on his 19th birthday, for good measure. The debutant then beat Mariano Puerta in the final and became the first teenager to win a Grand Slam since Pete Sampras in 1990. Nadal had arrived and he’s been there ever since.

Nadal became the first teenager since Pete Sampras in 1990 when he won the French Open in 2005 (Getty Images)
Nadal became the first teenager since Pete Sampras in 1990 when he won the French Open in 2005 (Getty Images)

He followed that up with three consecutive wins in 2006, 2007 and 2008, the ‘08 title was complete domination, he didn’t even drop a set on his way to his fourth consecutive victory. He was undoubtedly living up to his new-found nickname, The King of Clay. 

But let’s gloss over the straight sets wins and one-sided finals, (nobody has taken the Spaniard to five sets in a French Open final let alone beaten him) and focus on those two losses. Two. The two players that beat him and should be part of every half-decent pub quiz? Novak Djokovic in 2015 and the pointless answer that would bring a smile to Richard Osman’s face, Robin Soderling in 2009. 

That loss against the 6ft 4in Swede goes down as one of the biggest sporting shocks of the 21st century. Sorderling was ranked 23rd in the world heading into that tournament, but clay was his favoured surface and on that day, even the weather was on his side. Fellow professionals have since explained exactly why Nadal fell short in 2009.

Jo-Wilfriend Tsonga claims illness was a factor, telling his Twitch stream: “Rafa will never speak about this, but when he lost to Soderling at the French Open in 2009, we all knew he was sick. He had a bad throat and did not feel well at all. That’s the truth.”

Nadal didn't even drop a set on his way to a fourth French Open win in 2008 (Getty Images)
Nadal didn't even drop a set on his way to a fourth French Open win in 2008 (Getty Images)

Meanwhile former US Open champion Andy Roddick claimed Soderling’s sheer height and power favoured him, thanks to the weather. “Rafa does not play well in cold and clammy conditions. If you look at the weather that day, the conditions were misty and Rafa could not get the ball up. And Soderling was clubbing the ball because it had no bounce.”

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Either way, to his credit, Nadal himself has never made any excuses for that loss and he got revenge on the Swede the following year, beating him in the final. That was the first of a record five consecutive wins for Nadal, who made it nine out of ten French Open titles in 2014.

In 2015, there was no illness, there were no excuses. Djokovic beat Nadal in straight sets five years ago, simply because the Serbian is one of the finest players of all time and on that day, he had Nadal’s number. A straight sets win led to a few questions over Nadal’s future, given he was approaching the age of 30, that dreaded age where sportsmen are meant to decline. 

The following year those critics had more fuel for their fire as the Spaniard withdrew ahead of his third round match with a wrist injury. After starting so young and dominating for a decade, the 30-year-old’s body was now breaking down. That’s what they thought.

In 2017, the King of Clay returned to Roland Garros in the only way he knew how. He regained his title without dropping a set. The doubters were silenced. 

His recent trio of wins, including the 2018 and 2019 success’ over Dominic Thiem in both finals, are arguably the most impressive of the lot given he is now in his mid-thirties and the competition is as tough as ever. Unless Father Time is looking down fondly on him, he is unlikely to match the oldest ever winner of the tournament however, Andre Vacherot won back in 1901 at the ripe old age of 40. 

For Rafa, another French Open title will only add to his legacy as the finest ever clay court player. Long live the King!