“On Clay Nadal is King’’
Is there anyone around to stop Rafael Nadal from winning the French Open starting on Monday? His form suggests that he is all set to extend his record title wins to eleven – a feat most deserving for the greatest clay court player of all time.
Even in a highly competitive field that can be stated for certain. The same cannot be said for example when it comes to grass courts for Pete Sampras has won Wimbledon seven times and Federer eight times. But ten titles at Roland Garros is way ahead of the competition.
Before the Spaniard Sweden’s Bjorn Borg was considered the master of clay courts. Besides several other titles on the surface he won the French Open six times. But Nadal has taken his supremacy on the surface to a level on which the most cautious gambler can bet will never be broken. After all he is still at it and in dominating form and so in his case No 11 in the first week of June and perhaps even No 12 next year cannot be ruled out.
When Borg dominated tennis in the 70s and early 80s – he also won five Wimbledon titles - one of his opponents said ''we play tennis, he plays something else.’’ Much the same can be said about Nadal. He has also won the Wimbledon title twice on his way to a 16 Grand Slam titles and a career Grand Slam but it is his record on clay and more particularly at the French Open that is of the eye rubbing and mind boggling variety.
Arriving for the Italian Open Nadal had won his eleventh titles at each Monte Carlo and Barcelona. There was no let-up at Rome and all too predictably he went on to win another title even though the field with Alexander Zverev, Novak Djokovic, Marin Cilic, Kei Nishokori, David Goffin, Juan Martin Del Potro and Dominic Thiem was very strong. That did not stop Nadal from winning an eighth Italian Open title and his 32nd Masters Trophy and in the process regaining the No 1 slot in the ATP rankings pushing Federer to second spot. At the moment he has an astonishing 408-36 record on clay in the Open era.
The fast rising Zverev had his chance when he led Nadal 3-1 in the decider at Rome but the master after two rain stoppages reeled off four games in a row to ensure yet another title. Zverev was the defending champion and the second seed and was on a 13-match winning streak which included back to back clay court titles in Munich and Madrid. But at the end of it all the 21-year-old German who is 0-5 against Nadal on clay was effusive in his praise. ''You are the greatest clay court player of all time. I am disappointed that my streak is over but then I did lose to Rafa’’
Still if there is one player who can upset Nadal at Roland Garros it has to be Zverev who has risen to No 3 in the ATP rankings. His form on clay has been impressive and he has already won 30 matches this year, more than any other player on the circuit. The other challenger reckoned to be in with a chance is Thiem who after all is the only player to beat Nadal on clay this year ousting him in the quarterfinals at Madrid. The Austrian in fact was the only player to defeat Nadal on clay last year too and having won 25 matches he is just behind Zverev as the players who have a chance to topple Nadal.
Both Thiem and Zverev have yet to win a Grand Slam but there could just be another serious challenger for Nadal in the 12-time Grand Slam winner Djokovic. The Serbian has had an indifferent year but there were signs at Rome that he could be putting all that behind him when he made the semifinals only to go down to Nadal in the 51st match of their celebrated rivalry.
But there is no denying the fact that Nadal will again start prohibitive favourite to win his 11th French Open title. As a supreme artist and as one whose athleticism on court is legendary the 31-year-old Spaniard is in a league of his own. He is also remarkably focused and his hunger for success knows no bounds.
One example symbolizes this. Immediately after making the final at Monte Carlo with a comfortable 6-4, 6-1 victory over No 5 ranked Grigor Dimitrov he was seen whipping out his phone and frantically texting coach Carlos Moya. When asked about this Nadal said ''I was texting Carlos to tell him that we need to book a court quick. I wanted to hit some forehand winners that I think I need for tomorrow’s final.’’
Typical of Nadal that he was focused on ironing out even the smallest of flaws. It didn’t matter that he had beaten his opponent in the title clash Nishokori nine times out of eleven. It served as a reminder of the relentless perfectionist Nadal is even on his best surface. And after losing the next day Nishikori said reflecting the views of his contemporaries, “On clay Nadal is King’’.