It was back in 2005 when Rafael Nadal first broke through in a big way and began his dominance on the clay courts.
The then-teenager from Manacor, Spain, won 24 matches in a row on clay. During that stretch he won marquee tournaments in Spain, Monte Carlo, and Italy. And shortly after his 19th birthday, Nadal would cap it off by claiming his maiden Grand Slam at Roland Garros.
Today, at 32, Nadal has also captured one Australian Open, two Wimbledon, and three US Open titles – thus giving him 17 Grand Slams. He also won the Gold Medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.
Given his accomplishments and his 23-15 head-to-head record against Roger Federer, there are some tennis observers who argue that Nadal deserves serious consideration as the greatest of all time.
Regardless, Nadal’s dominance on clay, and his unprecedented 11 French Open titles, has made him the undisputed King of Clay.
With the 2019 French Open just getting underway, he returns to Paris as the man to beat and the defending champion.
It was last June when Nadal captured his 11th French Open title by defeating Dominic Thiem 6-4 6-3 6-2 in the championship match.
“That minute or two minutes of the crowd supporting, that feeling in that moment was difficult to describe it. Very emotional for me,” said Nadal afterwards.
Given his history with injuries, Nadal admitted in his post-match presser that his longevity and success has even surprised himself.
“If you tell me seven, eight years ago that I will be here at 32 years old having this trophy with me again, I will tell you that is something almost impossible, but here we are,” Nadal added.
The 2018 French Open runner-up was quick to point out Nadal’s brilliance and dominance at Roland Garros.
“If you win a Grand Slam tournament 11 times, one single one, then this is just very exceptional and amazing. You need to have, I think, many extraordinary skills and talents and work ethics to achieve that,” said Thiem.
“When he won here the first time, actually when he won here the first four or five times, I was always watching it. Of course it’s really a great thing that I made my way and that I was competing in a final against him…..It’s a really great thing, honestly, but still I’m disappointed,” he added.
Thiem was able to extract a small measure of revenge last month when he defeated Nadal in the semifinals at the Barcelona Open – a tournament he would go on to win.
Given that Nadal still had not won a clay court tournament – or any tournament for that matter in 2019 – heading into the Rome Masters, there may have been some tennis observers who believed that perhaps the 32-year-old’s best days may be behind him.
Having to overcome recent injuries to his knee, his foot, and then his hand was a mentally draining ordeal for the former world No. 1.
“In Acapulco I had something in the hand that I was not able to play for five days before the tournament start. I recovered. I felt myself playing so well in Indian Wells again. Had to pull out there. Mentally was tough,” Nadal revealed.
However, at the Italian Open, Nadal silenced all his doubters and showed he was back at 100%. He would avenge his loss against Tsitsipas by beating the youngster in the semifinals; and then would go on to beat world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the championship match.
“Finally I have a title,” said Nadal about winning his first tournament of 2019 in Rome.
“For me, the most important thing is feel myself playing well and feel myself healthy, with the energy that I need. If that happens, experience is that I going to fight for titles sooner or later.”
On his road to recovery from injuries, the 17-time Grand Slam Champion said the process is just as important as the destination.
“I worked hard to be where I am, mentally and physically, and in terms of tennis, too. That’s the victory. Is the work of every day more than winning titles. The most important victory is the daily work and the motivation to be back.”
After their match, Djokovic spoke in detail about what makes his rival so dominant on clay.
“He’s got a very difficult, heavy topspin. He can change directions so easily. He’s got a great flick of the wrist. He’s so talented on any surface. But, I mean, clay especially. He covers the court so well,” said the world No. 1.
“The shots that you can win the rally or a point against 99% of players, with him it doesn’t work. It takes an extra shot more.”
During his post match presser in Rome, Djokovic was also asked who he thought was the favorite entering 2019’s second major.
“Nadal, number one favorite, without a doubt, then everyone else,” replied Djokovic simply.
As Nadal begins his title defense at the French Open, he does so free of the injuries which has slowed him at the beginning of the 2019 season. Nadal will also have that extra level of confidence in his game given his recent tournament win in Rome. And with that said, for those looking to knock the King of Clay off his thrown at Roland Garros, the challenge becomes that much more daunting.
Main Photo from Getty