Time to shed the ‘claysmith' tag

That six of Nadal's 10 major titles have come in Paris skews his accomplishments in a manner unbecoming of a player ranked among the best across surfaces. The career Grand Slam having been dispensed with — Nadal has won each of the four Grand Slams at least once — there is little pressure on the southpaw to round up his haul by adding a specific major to his collection. What remains is the setting right of a record that doesn't justify the forceful presence that Nadal has been on courts other than clay. Over to Kunal Diwan.

It's a wonder Rafael Nadal claimed his record-equalling sixth French Open title after playing for the better part of two weeks a lesser brand of tennis than what he has come to be associated with. Nadal came to Paris with little of last year's clamour — when a clean sweep of the Masters 1000 tournaments on clay had heralded his arrival — surrounding him. A double trouncing at the hands of Novak Djokovic, the form horse, by a mile, this year, in Madrid and Rome, indicated that Nadal's iron grip on the Coupe des Mousquetaires looked likely to loosen in 2011.

The first week lent credence to that point of view. The man from Manacor was taken to five sets by John Isner in the opening match — the first time he had gone the distance at Roland Garros — and survived a patchy performance against compatriot Pablo Andujar in the second round. But Nadal consigned to nothingness his relative dearth of form and shook off the physical and psychological impediments of tough early opponents. By the time his semifinal showdown against Andy Murray was hoisted on the billboards, the 25-year-old was on the mend, still not rolling his forehands like when in top gear, but hitting them deep and angling them enough to show the Scotsman another Grand Slam semifinal exit.

Nadal maintained his hypnotic mastery of Roger Federer in the final, surviving a blaze of winners from the Swiss in the first set, surmounting a vexatious blister on his heel in the second, to wrap up the match in four sets despite Federer's gallant ploy of over-spinning his backhand returns instead of resorting to the ladylike slice.

It was a tournament hard won, totally unlike his 2008 shock-and-awe campaign that culminated in the title without the loss of a set.

“Sometimes when you fight a lot to win, when you try your best in every moment to change the situation, it makes the title more special. For example, in 2008 I think I played better than ever, but I finished the tournament and I didn't feel that I won Roland Garros because I won in three sets. When you come back after a tough situation, it makes the tournaments and the victories more special for sure,” said Nadal.

This latest triumph sits Nadal alongside Bjorn Borg on six French Open titles apiece. Behemoths both, the Spaniard and the Swede ruled their respective times on the red dirt. At 25 years, Nadal is also the second-youngest player ever, behind Borg, to have won 10 Grand Slams, which leaves him six behind Roger Federer's all-time mark of 16, with at least a few more years of competition left in the wearying knees. Too many variables, the most significant being his gruelling style of play, thicken the side plot of the Spaniard having a realistic shot at Federer's overall record of majors. But there's another factor that is likely to determine the course and tilt of Nadal's career henceforth.

That six of his 10 major titles have come in Paris skews his accomplishments in a manner unbecoming of a player ranked among the best across surfaces. The career Grand Slam having been dispensed with — Nadal has won each of the four Grand Slams at least once — there is little pressure on the southpaw to round up his haul by adding a specific major to his collection. What remains is the setting right of a record that doesn't justify the forceful presence that Nadal has been on courts other than clay.

He has at present two Wimbledon crowns, and one Australian Open and U.S. Open each, to go along with half-a-dozen French Open trophies. Considering that he has won everywhere, any corrective action that Nadal embarks on to remedy the clay slant of his body of work will cut both ways: straighten out the skew as well as get him closer to Federer's ultimate score of 16. And where better to start than on the hallowed turf of the All-England Club — already twice conquered — where he begins the defence of his crown in a couple of weeks.

Nadal has two Wimbledon titles, one of which was snatched in a storied encounter with Federer, who betrays the same degree of comfort at SW9 as Nadal does on the sludge of Paris. Federer has often claimed winning Wimbledon to be his “top priority” of the season and in his second wind at 29, the man who arrested Djokovic's 41-match winning streak this year (43 overall) cannot be taken lightly. With the arc-lights trained firmly on the top two, the third best player in the world has played fearlessly, gone for broke off either flank and lashed out backhand top-spinners that have painted a picture of perfect symmetry when placed against his forehand game. All of Federer's masterful dominance however appears to come to naught when confronted with Nadal, who holds a 6-2 record over the Swiss in major finals — including a win at Wimbledon. Nadal has lost a spate of battles to Djokovic this season — that too on his favourite surface, clay — hence even more than the resurgent Swiss, it is the relentless Serb who is likely to pose a greater threat.

Although Nadal clung on to the No.1 ranking (barely, by a difference of 45 points) after his triumph at Roland Garros, Djokovic has been snapping at his heels all year past. Wimbledon with its lightning quick courts in the first week will surely favour the Serbian, possibly the fastest mover in contemporary tennis. For a player on as acute an upswing as Djokovic, the biggest prize in the sport is likely to be a huge motivation. Djokovic's decision to pull out of the Queen's tournament, citing patellar tendonitis, will grant him a well-earned rest before the big fortnight in London.

Nadal will also have an eye on the perpetually unfulfilling Andy Murray and the Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro, who at full fitness on a grass court has the combined firepower of a couple of nukes, but is struggling to hit top flight after returning from injury. Big servers abound and usually find success at Wimbledon. And there'll be plenty in the draw capable of hurling down unreturnable scud missiles. Whether it's the rising stars Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson, the fast-disappearing former finalist Andy Roddick, the rapidly improving Victor Troicki or Richard Gasquet — who appears to have had a positive rethink on his life and game — Nadal will have to summon some carronades of his own if he is to land a third Wimbledon title.