Rafael Nadal is playing the best tennis on the tour at the moment and that is unquestionable. And now he’s back ‘home’ – at his favourite Grand Slam. His titles and streak in Paris (72-2) never gave the impression that he can be ‘gone’. Neither did he fall from the helm even with injuries striking. (Men’s Singles Results | Women’s Singles Results)
Nine titles at French Open and the 81-match winning streak for Nadal are records beyond measures. Remember, all this was achieved on clay courts. Playing on hard courts, which is the norm these days in tennis, a player can trust the surface. The movement of the player and the ball is smoother. Clay court is different world. It’s like a slower version of everything. It’s made of crushed bricks. The balls bounce more and skid less, giving more reaction time to players, increasing the number of retrievals.
On these courts, a decade ago, Nadal was number one. No one could break him. He has suffered only two losses in Paris — a shocking round-of-16 loss to Robin Soderling in 2009 and then, six years later, a quarterfinal defeat to Novak Djokovic in 2015. Last year, he pulled out of the competition before his third round match.
Clay has always thrown new faces as champions. Some of the best players have the worst record on this surface.
And then there is Nadal. No one matches him on clay. While others tire out, he constructs a point with clarity and ruthlessness combined. The result is that he has 22 Masters titles on clay.
Nadal and Roger Federer fought it off in the same era and it has been a treat for the fans. Presence of one has impacted the dominance or attempted dominance of the other. While Federer was an artist, Nadal was a wall. Strong, sending in return after return and yet not tiring out. His style wasn’t beautiful, in conventional terms, but ruthless and it seemed like he will remain the same.
Federer has voluntarily opted to sit out of second Grand Slam of the season to prepare for his kingdom. Nadal will not face him on clay but we are living in a tennis world of past, with older players. The two met at the Australian Open final earlier this year and it didn’t turn out to be a one-off thing. Before he took a break, Federer won twice more against Nadal – in Indian Wells and Miami.
While Federer was out of competition, Nadal continued his return, winning three straight titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid. He was defeated by Dominic Thiem in Rome two weeks back. But, he still is the world number four player and has picked up more ranking points than anyone else this year.
When Nadal takes on Benoit Paire on Monday, he will be the favourite. But the clay in Paris will not take Nadal forward if he himself suffers from the tiredness of his favourite surface after all these years. Nadal could lose any day but he survives the two weeks and is holding the French Open trophy two Sundays later, we can be assured that the Nadal-decline never began.