When Spain’s Garbine Muguruza won the 2016 French Open title, she made a humorous comparison between herself winning her first title and compatriot Rafael Nadal winning it nine times over. “How can he win nine times? Right away I’m like, ‘That’s impossible, to do it again,’” she had said, emphasising yet again Nadal’s dominance in Paris.
A year on, Muguruza’s words resonate even more impactfully, with Nadal having claimed an unprecedented 10th French Open title, alongside dotting history pages with a slew of colourful trivia.
A domination unlike any other
Nadal had won the French Open for the first time in 2005. “In 2005, I thought in 2017 I’d be fishing on my boat in Majorca,” he said after winning title No 10 at Roland Garros. “Back then, of course, I couldn’t think even for a second that this would ever happen to me.”
One could then just as easily substitute 2005 in the above quote with 2016, even though the latter was perhaps his bleakest tennis season. After withdrawing from the tournament before his third-round match in 2016, it seemed unthinkable that the 31-year-old would regroup in such a manner and so swiftly the very next year.
Nadal holding aloft the Coupe de Mousquetaires on Sunday with relief and satisfaction shining on his face like never before has, therefore, given a different perspective to his latest victory.
It has been often pointed out that his supremacy on clay is massively indicative of being him a one-court specialist. That he has summed up a troika of 10 titles in three different clay tournaments across three different event categories this year – French Open (Grand Slam), Monte Carlo (Masters), Barcelona Open (ATP 500) – then looks to have validated this aspect, aside of him being lauded in a deserving manner.
While it can never be argued that Nadal and clay have come to be synonymous with each other, the effort it has taken for him to maintain such high levels of consistency on the surface has also been conveniently forgotten. The surface is, indeed, best suited to his game. But, to just talk about the surface and his game-style would not only be superficial, it would also not do him justice in entirety.
La Decima: The reign of a king
In reality, however, Nadal’s high turnover of results on clay in all these years is a blend of myriad factors. His style of play does ensure he goes in as the favourite every time he takes the court, but it’s his familiarity and comfortableness with his surrounding that secures him the wins. Not once or twice, but for years strung together in an uninterrupted stretch. As it is about the smattering of losses he has had to face. Without considering those defeats, Nadal wouldn’t be the player he is.
“I try my best in all events,” Nadal said. “That’s the real thing. But the feeling I have here is impossible to describe and difficult to compare to another place. For me, the nerves, the adrenaline that I feel when I play in this court is impossible to compare to another feeling. Just for me, it’s the most important event in my career, without a doubt.”
He was describing the straightforward relationship he has had at Roland Garros. Nonetheless, Nadal’s statements are encompassing and relevant to all his other achievements in the other tournaments played on clay. This facet, then, specifically pertains to Monte Carlo and Barcelona where he has had an equally memorable and poignant journey through the years.
The 15-time Grand Slam champion’s achievements have then set him on a unique place among the world’s best tennis players, across generations.
Nine was the previous high note, hit by Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon, followed by the tally of seven at the Championships shared by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic at a standalone position with six title hauls at the Australian Open. But 10 was the last wall left standing, and so it was fittingly scaled by a player who is referred to as the king and whose latest annexing came as easily as it was difficult for him, the first time around in 2005.