It is the inversion of an Achilles Heel. Clay, for Rafael Nadal, is his Achilles Steel. Stade Roland Garros — particularly Court Philippe Chatrier — is Nadal’s citadel, the almost-impregnable location that has been pierced only once in 60 matches.
How has Nadal been able to become the first male to win a major tournament eight times? How has the Mallorcan managed to become the first male to win at least one major in nine straight years? How has Rafael Nadal Parera become so un-Parera-lleled in so many ways? He has defended his citadel with his signature virtue: his tirelessness, his inexhaustible will to win.
John McEnroe came close to winning Roland Garros, and Roger Federer captured it once. Novak Djokovic will probably chase down this title before he hangs up his racquet. Andre Agassi managed to break through in Paris before he retired. Yet, it’s striking how those men and other great ATP champions — if they did win in Paris — did not do so more than once.
Clay, as tennis fans know, requires more patience, stamina, and heavy hitting than other surfaces. Point construction and defense are magnified on the surface, and more specifically, they are magnified within the context of “the long game,” a war of attrition. Defense is not necessarily LESS important on grass or cement, but the defense that one must exhibit on those two surfaces is more of the quick-reacting variety. Flicked retrievals and blocked-back first-serve returns matter more on faster surfaces. On clay, the ability to chase down shots while often absorbing a high-topspin kick — thereby forcing an opponent to hit two or three more balls when it’s not as easy to penetrate the court with groundstrokes — becomes paramount.
The global tennis community has been able to see, since he burst onto the scene at Roland Garros in 2005, why Nadal was born — constructed in every way imaginable — to dominate and sustain said dominance on clay. If you wanted to build a player for the specific purposes of: A) giving Roger Federer problems; and B) dominating the ATP Tour on clay, especially in best-of-five-set matches, Rafael Nadal would be the template. Bjorn Borg is, without doubt, one of the five or six (certainly no lower than six) greatest male tennis players who has ever lived, and yet Nadal has clearly “relegated” Borg to second-best status on clay. Ivan Lendl, a true worker bee who won Roland Garros three times, looks almost pedestrian on clay compared to what Nadal has forged on the surface. Mats Wilander and Guga Kuerten, also three-time Roland Garros champions, so clearly pale in comparison to the fury of Nadal on terre battue.
One should realize that these are not knocks against some of the greatest Open Era Roland Garros champions who have ever lived. This is all a commentary on how high Nadal has lifted the bar in comparison to his predecessors, beginning with Borg. Nadal has seen off Federer in his prime, and the past two years, Rafa has done the same thing to Novak Djokovic (which magnifies the fact that Federer has lost to Nadal in four Roland Garros finals — the notion that “other people could have done better than Federer” loses validity each year Nadal continues to defend his title against other opponents and other finalists).
This is something I wrote about yesterday with respect to Serena Williams: The highest form of greatness in sports emerges when an athlete (or team) expands the human sense of what’s possible. Serena is still doing this more than anyone else in tennis, but on clay, it’s obvious that Nadal has authored just such a dynamic in comprehensive and spectacular fashion. His total ownership of this surface, this style of play, this marriage between shotmaking and persistent work, knows no peer.
It is something to behold and cherish. We’re not going to see the likes of Rafael Nadal ever again, especially not on clay.
Another word is merited on the matter of Serena Williams, and how her Roland Garros title magnifies Nadal’s newly-retained crown. Recall that Serena won a straight-set women’s championship match without needing to go to seven games (or more than 10 total games) in either set versus Maria Sharapova… on a day when Sharapova played fairly well. It was little different for Nadal on Sunday in Paris: David Ferrer did not wet the bed. The No. 4 seed played a perfectly respectable match — a little nervous in pockets here and there — but was handed a 3, 2 and 3 drubbing anyway. When Nadal lifted his level of play in each set, there was no place for Ferrer to turn. He was hopelessly outclassed from the start, simply because he did not have the assortment of weapons needed to trouble a plainly superior foe. Serena-Sharapova and Nadal-Ferrer were, in this respect, twin tilts on championship weekend in France.
Forget about Wimbledon for a moment. We’ll talk about that tournament in good time and deal with questions that pertain to surfaces other than clay. For now, one can only marvel at the extent to which one man has made crushed red brick the foundation of a citadel that stands very much intact for an eighth time at Roland Garros.