When Rafael Nadal turned pro back in 2001, looking a lot like a surfer dude who stumbled upon a court by the shore, the record for most Grand Slams in men’s tennis was 13. Pete Sampras would eventually add one more to his own collection a year later, with the last match of his career. But when Nadal won his first ATP points in Seville that September, all of 15 years of age and with a reputation nearly as old, Sampras’s overall tally at the Majors was 13.
Now Nadal has just as many at a single Major, the French Open; a venue so immaculately dominated by him that Roland Garros has long transformed from being his backyard to his personal man cave. Before Nadal, the biggest haul in Paris – the most unforgiving of the four Slams – was Bjorn Borg’s six.
Now, that number will be whatever Nadal will want it to be.
He already has 13, a figure so outlandish that Roger Federer called it “one of the greatest achievements in sport”. Not tennis, but all of sport. After Nadal had gone where no man had gone by breaching the double-digit mark in Paris in 2017, the non-partisan organisers unfurled a stand-sized banner that blinded the paying spectators of one entire stand right through the presentation ceremony. All that to get a simple message across – “Bravo Rafa”.
Since then, Nadal has hoisted the dazzlingly named Coupe des Mousquetaires three more times, which is as many Slams as Andy Murray’s career in the majors; add two more US Open titles, and you have the equivalent to Lleyton Hewitt’s entire haul of Slams. Or Marat Safin’s. Or Jim Courier’s. They’re all greats, so take your pick.
History is often forged by going against the grain of tradition; even technically speaking, there has never been a player quite like Nadal. The all-time great players tend to shape the future stars in their image. Rod Laver, Sampras and Federer are cut from a particular kind of fabric. Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi and Novak Djokovic are like different generations of the same operating system, repackaged with nuanced advancements in the software.
Nadal’s style has no antecedents. And after nearly two decades and 20 Slams worth of inspiration, he has spawned no descendants either. Look around the pro-circuit and you’ll spot a number of players birthed from the Djokovic prototype and a few elegant Baby Federers as well. But the whiplashing, top-spinning, lefty-powered game, an experience fuelled with high voltages of adrenaline from a mile behind the baseline, belongs to Rafa alone. It makes him unique. It makes him absolute.
This systemic play was created with a singular vision. Intricately pieced together by his uncle on the mud courts of Mallorca, Nadal’s early (and only) purpose was to be the antithesis of the then-greatest player in the world, Federer – shot for shot, surface for surface and habit for habit. But as all mythical lab doctors find out sooner or later, Uncle Toni’s creation too wanted more.
Before Nadal won his first Slam outside of the French Open, Federer had already won 12 majors. In nine of them, the Swiss didn’t have to get past either Nadal or Djokovic. Nadal, on the other hand, had to beat Federer along the way in each of his first six majors–all four Roland Garros titles, his maiden conquest at Wimbledon, as well as his only Australian Open crown. The clay-specialist was now an all-court player.
As Federer receded from “greatest in the history” to “one of the greatest in the history” in Nadal’s humble acceptance speeches, the Spaniard found newer Gods to rival and dominate. On Sunday, he appeared in a ninth Grand Slam final with Djokovic, which only equalled the appearances record he had previously held with Federer. Federer had been beaten on six of those occasions and yesterday, Nadal tilted the scale on the Serb with a fifth win.
The truth, however, is that Nadal’s greatest rival has been his body. For a man who had to contend with Federer in the first half of his career and Djokovic in the ongoing second, Nadal’s biggest foes have been his knees, his shoulders, his calves and even blistered toes. These injuries forced him to withdraw from defending his titles at Wimbledon in 2009 and the US Open in 2014.
Then, a different set of injuries ensured his only Slam-less years, abdomen in 2015 and left wrist in 2016. Yet, no wound has yet dented Nadal’s spirit; he simply finds a way to get up after each new fall, dust off the mud from his pants and go again.
At 34, Nadal is a vastly different physical being from who he was in his teens and twenties. The changes on a superficial level are easily seen–the biceps are less ripped, the locks have given way to a comb-over and the shorts have shrunk. But the ferocity of his play has remained untouched; perhaps even bettered, thanks to a more penetrative serve and his sharp play at the net. This, then, makes the evening of his career just as outrageous in its promise at its dawn.
If the early Nadal was programmed to reel in the greatest, which he has done now, then the latest avatar is determined to pull away from the pack. In just the last decade, he won four US Opens, a surface theoretically and technically unsuited for his precise set of skills. Even if he weren’t to win another Slam on the hard courts or grass, there is always Paris.
There will come a day, as he gets older if not slower, when Nadal will prioritise the clay-swing of a tennis calendar over all other legs. And that is when he will be at his most dangerous, with the sole focus on a tournament that means more to him than the rest, the French Open.
In Paris, Nadal’s possibilities have always been endless.