In 13 days, Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal will begin his campaign to claim a record-extending 14th French Open title.
Left-handed Nadal, due to his prowess on the surface, has been given the sobriquet ‘King of Clay.’ Without deep-diving into his point-construction process, having a look just at the mere numbers is good enough to show how dominant he has been on clay.
Nadal played his first ATP Tour main draw match as a 15-year-old on clay on home soil in Mallorca. Nadal, then world number 762, won 6-4, 6-4 against Paraguay’s Ramon Delgado, a player who was ranked 681 places higher than him. Overall, Nadal has played 507 matches on clay and won 464 of them, which is roughly 92 per cent.
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Nadal’s first ATP singles title also came on clay when he beat Argentine Jose Acasuso 6-3, 6-4 to lift the trophy in Sopot, Poland, in 2004. At present, out of Nadal’s 91 singles titles, 62 have been on this surface.
Leading up to the 2022 French Open, which begins on May 22, this series will take you through Nadal's 13 French Open titles, which constitute almost 21 per cent of those 62.
Long hair with a bandanna to keep them out of his eyes, wearing capri pants and green sleeveless t-shirts, Nadal made his first appearance at Roland Garros in 2005, two years later than he was originally supposed to. A right elbow injury in 2003 had shifted his Grand Slam debut from the clay court in Paris to Wimbledon where he reached the third round. He went on to play the US Open that year and Australian Open in 2004. However, a stress fracture made him miss not just Roland Garros but most of the clay court season that year.
Come 2005, Nadal was ready.
Before the French Open, he played seven events on clay and won five of them. Having started the year ranked 51, the Spaniard was world number five by the time he set foot in Paris.
Nadal began his debut French Open campaign with straight sets wins over Lars Burgsmuller, Xavier Malisse and Richard Gasquet. He finally dropped a set during the 6-4, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 win against Sebastien Grosjean in the fourth round, following it up with a 7-5, 6-2, 6-0 demolition of compatriot and then World No. 21 David Ferrer in the quarterfinals.
In the final four clash which happened to take place on his 19th birthday, Nadal’s opponent was World No. 1 and his soon-to-be long-term rival - Switzerland’s Roger Federer. The two had faced each other twice before the semifinal - both times in Miami. While Nadal had won the third round clash in 2004, it was Federer who came from two sets down to win the final in April 2005 (From 1985 until 1990 and again from 1997 to 2007, the format for men's final was best-of-five sets).
On this occasion, both were playing their first ever French Open semifinal although in the Swiss maestro’s case, he had already played in Paris six times before 2005.
The match began with a memorable opening rally - right-handed Federer serving wide to Nadal’s right who had to slide to send the return with the World No. 1 already in position to hit the inside-out forehand to the other corner. However, the teenager displayed tremendous court speed and while running, hit a forehand pass to Federer’s right. That point basically set the tone for the first set as both players struggled to hold serve. Nadal ended up winning the set 6-3. However, Federer made a quick turnaround to take a 5-1 lead in the second before eventually wrapping it up 6-4.
The third set was quite close until Nadal, from 30-40 down, broke Federer in the sixth game to go 4-2 ahead. The 23-year-old from Basel responded promptly to get things back on serve but soon found himself in trouble again. Serving at 5-4 30-40, Federer saved a set point only to be left frustrated as Nadal clinched the next two to take the set 6-4.
Federer did raise the possibility of a sensational comeback by breaking Nadal in the third game of the fourth set but from 1-3 down, the Spaniard reeled off five straight games to reach the final. The final point, a gruelling 18-shot rally, ended with Federer’s forehand going long, Nadal dropping his racquet and falling flat on his back, an iconic celebration which has been seen many times since then.
Two days later, as opposed to what people may have thought might be a mere formality after beating Federer, the summit clash against World No. 37 Mariano Puerta of Argentina was no easy task for Nadal. He lost the opening set in the tiebreaker before coming back to win the next three 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 in a match that lasted three hours and 24 minutes. This was Nadal's 24th consecutive win.
Nadal became just the second man after Mats Wilander in 1982 to win Roland Garros on his debut in Paris. Fifteen years after Pete Sampras at US Open, Nadal was also the first male teenager to win a Major.
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