The essayist Charles Péguy believed modern France was forged from special periods of immense significance; some epochs in a country’s evolution were more valuable than others. The same is true of Roland-Garros, which has endured some humdrum times – punctuated by rare but spectacular golden eras. We are living in one such time.
In 2005 the French Open entered the Nadal era. The Mallorcan Rafa Nadal has ruled the Parisian clay with utter ruthlessness. His dominance eclipses that of Federer and Sampras at Wimbledon; Emerson and Djokovic in Australia; even Borg in Paris – never has a champion made a surface so totally their own.
We first met Rafa Nadal in Paris as a swashbuckling teenager – a champion from the very first swing of that prodigious left arm. He is now 30, but still the man to beat. A titanic, immovable presence whose imprint on his sport needs no enhancing... but who may yet extend one of sport’s most remarkable periods of dominance.
History is written by the winners – a fact all too obvious to Lars Burgsmüller, a forgotten journeyman whose ranking peaked at 65.
It was only a question of whether he would win in his first year
The German’s final French Open appearance was a brush with greatness, even if he didn’t know it then. On 23 May 2005, Burgsmüller had the misfortune to cross paths with a chiselled 18-year-old armed with a headband, a sleeveless top and the most destructive forehand Roland-Garros has even seen. Nadal left Court One with a 6-1 7-6 6-1 win under his belt – it had begun.
Nadal’s French Open debut was twice delayed – by an elbow in 2003, then by a stress fracture. By 2005 he was already the world’s best clay-court player with a 17-match winning streak on the surface to back up his tag as favourite. "It was only a question of whether he would win in his first year," says Sébastien Grosjean, another of his victims in 2005. "Because we already knew he would win Roland-Garros, and multiple times."
Nadal’s coach, Uncle Toni, was convinced Rafa could become the first player to win on his Roland-Garros debut since Mats Wilander in 1982. "When he arrived in Paris, I knew he had the chance to win the tournament. He had won Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome," Toni says. "Was he convinced? You’d have to ask him. He had plenty of confidence but no certainty. And there was still a world number one called Roger Federer, so…"
Un visage à l'air encore adolescent : l'accréditation de Rafael Nadal lors de sa première participation en 2005.
Image credit: Getty Images
The first Grand Slam instalment of tennis’s greatest modern rivalry would take place in the semi-finals, on Nadal’s 19th birthday. Before that, his route to the last four included a spectacular 6-4 6-3 6-2 demolition of French darling Richard Gasquet. A brutal exhibition that serves as a stark demonstration of why one teenage starlet became a serial champion, and the other did not.
Another Frenchman, Sébastien Grosjean, was the only player to take a set off Nadal in his first five matches, losing 6-4 3-6 6-0 6-3, but he saw enough to know he was in the presence of greatness. "With his left arm, his mental strength and his incredible determination, he was already difficult to pass and we were moving extremely well," says Grosjean. "He was already so strong and confident in rallies. He loves fighting, he already loved it."
Mats Wilander, the last debut champion before Nadal says: "His attitude was incredible, fighting like a lion for every ball. To be honest, at the start of the fortnight I didn’t think he would win. But as I saw him evolve I told myself he could do it. Not so much because of his game but because of his mentality. He was an animal. He wasn’t scared and he wasn’t shy. He was a different breed, and he already looked like a champion."
Federer had never before faced Nadal on clay, but the pattern was soon set for a dominance that has seen the Swiss win just two of 15 meetings on the surface. Nadal’s dominance was clear; he celebrated his birthday with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win.
Mats Wilander et Rafael Nadal réunis en 2005. Le Suédois était le dernier joueur, en 1982, à s'être imposé à Paris dès ses premiers pas dans le tableau principal.
Image credit: Getty Images
The Argentine Mariano Puerta awaited in the final – a dogged left-hander with little to lose against the man universally expected to sweep to victory. "He was nervous, obviously," says Toni Nadal. "We both knew well that this was the most important match he had ever played ... especially since Rafa was favourite."
Puerta produced three-and-a-half hours of fierce intensity but eventually succumbed in four sets to the new king of Paris. "For me, it was a very beautiful final, really," Toni remembers. "We talk a lot about Rafa’s finals against Federer and Djokovic, but this was very beautiful and very tough."
Rafa wept, his only show of weakness in two weeks. He was the youngest Grand Slam winner since Pete Sampras in 1990; he was already making history.
CHAPTER 2: Federer and Djokovic – rivals... or victims?
If nine French Open titles were not remarkable enough, Rafa Nadal achieved this dizzying feat in the company of two other giants of tennis history – Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Of his many triumphs, only in 2010 did he face neither man en route to the title. They are the two players Nadal has beaten most often at Roland-Garros – Djokovic six times, Federer five, in seven finals and four semi-finals.
Without Rafa, Federer and Djokovic would probably have a dozen French Open titles between them. Instead they have one each. Federer’s lavish skills have never translated properly to clay; Djokovic has proved a more convincing rival, and finally beat Nadal in a one-way quarter-final in 2015.
“For Rafael, it was ‘simpler’ to face Federer because he had a clearer way to play against him,” says Uncle Toni. “We knew that by playing in a certain way he could constrain him. With Djokovic it’s more difficult, as there is not a clear way to dominate him. It was a fight every time.”
Nadal’s intelligence was to understand very quickly that he had the key to beat Federer
Federer found himself with an unsolvable problem. His weakest point – his backhand – came up against Nadal’s biggest asset, his extraordinary topspin forehand that has obliterated so many opponents. Wilander says: “Federer has a small technical flaw, because he does not have a big backhand taking the ball high above his shoulder, which would have allowed him to counter Nadal on clay. Nadal has the perfect game against a player with this type of weakness.
Sport Explainer: Rafael Nadal’s forehand, the ultimate weapon on clay
“Federer-Nadal, from a tactical point of view, is one of the worst match-ups of all time – unfortunately for Federer. To a lesser degree, McEnroe was also very problematic for Borg, because his left-handed serve pushed him wide, but nothing compares to the nightmare Nadal causes for Federer.”
In his five matches against Nadal at Roland-Garros, Federer only managed to pay in flashes – sometimes for a game or two; occasionally for a set like the 6-1 opening stanza of the 2006 final. But Nadal always weathered the storm, because he knew that it would pass.
“Nadal’s intelligence was to understand very quickly that he had the key to beat Federer. When be beat him in 2005 he told himself: ‘I’ve got this guy. Just do this and that and it will work every time.’”
Every time. Four times in four sets, and a massacre in the 2008 final – a 6-1 6-3 6-0 demolition, nine years and more than 2,000 sets of tennis since Federer was last ‘bagelled’. Toni, almost embarrassed, says: “Federer wasn’t having a very good day, and for Rafael everything was going well in that tournament.”
It was not only Federer, but also an expectant Parisian crowd that was devastated. “It completely killed the atmosphere,” says the New York Times journalist Christopher Clarey. “I remember Larry Ellison, Oracle CEO and a big tennis fan who later bought the Indian Wells tournament. He sat down proudly at the start awaiting a real battle, like everyone else. As the match progressed I looked at Ellison and I saw his disappointment becoming palpable.”
Despite the one-sidedness, the match remains one of Clarey’s favourites. “It was fascinating to see a player overcome one of the greatest champions in history with such ease.” That day, more than any other, the imbalance came from Nadal’s brilliance, not Federer’s failings. “I think for years people had been a bit unfair on Roger Federer,” reckons Wilander. “He was so good, but every time against Nadal people felt like he capitulated. But they didn’t realise just how bad the match-up was for him.”
No such case with Novak Djokovic, though surprisingly the Serb has one more French Open loss than Federer against Nadal. Between 2006 and 2008 he surrendered three straight times to Nadal without winning a set. After becoming world number one in 2011 he suffered three more painful setbacks – twice in the final (2012, 2014) and once in the semis (2013). Unlike Federer, Djokovic’s problem was not with Nadal but with the French Open itself – it became an obsession as the Serb chased a career Slam.
He had a mental block – simple as that
Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou says: “In Novak’s case, the clay court is a false debate – when he is at his best the surface is of little importance. He has often beaten Rafa on clay, heavily sometimes.” Nadal won the pair’s first nine meetings on clay, but since 2011 Djokovic has had the upper hand – 7-5. He tamed Nadal in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome – but in Paris the Mallorcan always had the final word. Was the five-set format a factor? Not for Mouratoglou. “There’s no logic in that. Novak is ultra-strong in five sets, he’s one of the toughest players. It’s an anomaly that he didn’t beat Rafa sooner at Roland-Garros, but he had a mental block – simple as that.”
And even when he finally beat Nadal in 2015, Djokovic fell at the last hurdle against Stan Wawrinka. Unlike Federer, Djokovic had the tools to beat Nadal – he just couldn’t use them. “I remember their semi-final in 2013,” says Mouratoglou. “As in the finals against Nadal, he just didn’t enter in the right frame of mind.” That match was their greatest battle in Paris, with Nadal winning 9-7 in the fifth having been a break down. “It was one of the biggest victories of Nadal’s career anywhere, which is saying a lot,” says Clarey. “There was enormous tension in every set, every game.”
Toni Nadal wept after the match. Clarey adds: “It was rare to see him like that, but the emotion was strong after Rafa’s 2012 injuries.” At Roland-Garros, Nadal could do everything, overcome everything, win everything. Even with two of the greatest players of all time across the net.
CHAPTER 3: The day the earth shook
When unlikely events take place, you will always find masters of hindsight who will claim they saw it coming. Yet nobody who attended Court Philippe Chatrier on 31 May 2009 had any idea what they were about to witness. That day the King of France was guillotined by Robin Soderling, as a routine fourth-round match became the greatest upset in the tournament’s history. Clarey admits: “I didn’t even watch the match at first, as I was confident Nadal would win easily.”
And with good reason. Nadal came to Paris in 2009 as a hotter favourite than ever before – boasting a 40-match unbeaten streak on clay, a four-times French Open winner and with his world number one status cemented by winning Wimbledon and the Australian Open. That spring, he won in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome – the latter campaign including a 6-1 6-0 dismembering of Soderling. He lost the Madrid final to Federer, but on a fast court the day after a four-hour tussle with Djokovic, nobody could have predicted his downfall.
The immense shock was down largely to what we did not know about both players. What Nadal could no longer produce, Soderling could. Nadal won his first three matches at Roland Garros without losing a set – including a 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 romp against Lleyton Hewitt – but the Spaniard was suffering in silence with a left knee injury.
“I didn’t notice any signs of irritation or any problems with his movement,” says Clarey. Toni Nadal remembers: “Rafael was very unwell. After the match against Hewitt, in the hotel that evening he was calm but sad. He was suffering. He still hoped to win the tournament, but he knew he couldn’t express himself 100 per cent.”
I’d never seen him make a face like that at Roland-Garros
However, he is at pains to note that Soderling played a “very, very good match” – the other key to transforming this last-16 match into an historic event. The big Swede, of great but hitherto unrealised potential, used his full powers to win 6-2 6-7 6-4 7-6. Wilander remembers the precise moment he knew the upset was on. "I remember Rafa’s face after the first four or five games – it said: ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to get away with it today.’ I’d never seen him make a face like that at Roland-Garros." Was this anxiety exacerbated by his physical limitations? “It’s possible,” says Wilander, “but I really want to give credit to Robin, who not only played great tennis but also did something more important that day – he found a way to beat Rafa Nadal on clay."
Before that day, Nadal had gone 31 matches unbeaten for the loss of just seven sets – three against Federer. The closest anyone had previously come to unseating the Spaniard was the unlikely figure of Paul-Henri Mathieu, who took him to five sets in 2006 – Nadal came through an epic battle lasting seven minutes short of five hours. Thierry Tulasne, Mathieu’s coach of the time, explains his tactics. “The idea was not to hesitate to play wide to Nadal’s forehand, to open up the backhand side and attack him. Paul had a super backhand and Nadal’s crosscourt forehand suited him very well.”
Three years later Soderling used the same tactic, with greater power, to send shockwaves through tennis. “Robin played as if he had the keys,” says Wilander. “He’s one of those players who has a lot of confidence. He knew he had the weapons to beat anyone, anywhere.” This conviction stemmed from his then coach, Magnus Norman. The Swede, who would later help Stan Wawrinka become a multiple Grand Slam winner, played a major role.
Soderling said in 2010: “Before the match, Magnus told me to imagine in my head the newspaper headlines after my victory, and wanted me to visualise myself as the winner.” On match point, at the brink of a life-changing moment, the Swede’s nerveless reaction suggests either total conviction or utter incredulity. For Team Nadal, a new form of pain. “It was very hard for me, losing at Roland Garros for the first time,” said Toni Nadal. “And it was a big defeat for Rafa, it was harder for him.”
Much harder to rationalise than the defeat to Djokovic in 2015 or the injury withdrawal the following year. Bitterness tinged the sadness – Nadal’s team felt the Parisian public disrespected him by supporting Soderling. Rafa said it politely at his press conference, but Toni showed no such diplomacy, calling fans who cheered his nephew’s demise “stupid”. Eight years on, the words have changed but the sentiment remains much the same. “The crowd can do what they want,” says Toni. “I didn’t think they treated Rafa correctly, but he didn’t lose because of the crowd.”
Paradoxically, processing what happened that day will almost have been harder for Soderling than Nadal. We can always recover from the most painful failure, but one remains imprisoned by one’s greatest exploits. Anthony Perkins often said his performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho made his career but also killed it. He would always be Norman Bates.
Soderling experienced Psycho Syndrome, becoming the guy who beat Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros. For a long time, he was the only one, and it was with some relief that he greeted Nadal’s second defeat against Djokovic in 2015. Soderling knew that until the end of his days, that match was all anyone would talk to him about. Nadal, however, could turn the page, and returned 12 months later to reclaim his title. Who should he meet in the final but Soderling, whom he despatched in straight sets. The ferocious conqueror had been rendered just another victim.
CHAPTER 4: Operation Décima
On the base of the Coupe des Mousquetaires, names are etched for eternity. But for two years, there has been an anomaly. The inscription ‘R. Nadal ESP’, nine times on the trophy, has disappeared – how strange the engraver must have felt carving the names ‘S. Wawrinka SUI’ and ‘N. Djokovic SRB’.
It is never wise to write history while it is still unfolding, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that Nadal is nearing his march into tennis legend. And if the Mallorcan has been physically stronger, the fire of his competitive will has never burned brighter than in May 2017. Nadal claimed titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid – in so doing rising to world number 3, his best ranking since March 2015. For years Nadal’s team Real Madrid were obsessed with ‘La Décima’ – their 10th European Cup. Now Nadal can complete a Décima of his own.
“Nadal is undoubtedly playing very well – he’s the favourite at Roland Garros,” says Patrick Mouratoglou. ‘Favourite’ is a huge understatement. Djokovic has undergone the traumatic removal of his entire coaching team as he searches for his best form. World number one Andy Murray, meanwhile, looks increasingly like a boss in name only. The other member of the historic Big Four, Federer, has all but announced his retirement from clay court tennis. So might it fall to an emerging talent such as Dominic Thiem or Alexander Zverev to mount the challenge?
“Young people are not afraid of anyone,” Mats Wilander agrees. “The likes of Zverev, Pouille of Kyrgios can beat anyone in a single match – even Nadal."
It’s so crazy to imagine that a player can win the same Grand Slam 10 times
It's impossible to disagree with in theory, but in practice, things aren't so simple. Kyrgios has a hip ailment, while Zverev was battered 6-1 6-1 by Nadal in Monte Carlo. Pouille was a shadow of himself in Madrid and Rome, which does not bode well. Thiem’s win over Nadal in Rome marks him out as an obvious threat – but Rafa handled the Austrian in the Barcelona and Madrid finals and Thiem’s subsequent 6-1 6-0 loss to Djokovic in the Rome final suggests a man still learning to cope with the mental and physical pressure of big tournaments.
“Rafa is obviously favourite, but it will probably be harder for him than people imagine,” Wilander believes. Having won three times in Paris, the Swede knows the magnitude of what Nadal is attempting. “It’s so crazy to imagine that a player can win the same Grand Slam 10 times... it’s beyond comprehension. Mentally it takes such commitment and concentration... even to win Roland Garros once.”
Toni Nadal is well-placed to confirm that Everest is no less high the 10th time you climb it. “You sometimes forget how hard it is to win Roland Garros, it’s always difficult. One thing is certain: even if Rafa does not succeed, he is super-motivated and not because he hasn’t won for three years. He is always motivated in Paris.”
Beaten by Djokovic in 2015, forced by injury to throw in the towel against Marcel Granollers in 2016 – Nadal left a void filled by Wawrinka and Djokovic. But the Parisian love story continues, and not since 2010 has the anticipation to crown Rafa Nadal the King of France been so feverish. Even the crowd, whose relationship with the Spaniard has not always been smooth?
Nicolas Mahut thinks so – all the more because Nadal has finally shown weakness and humanity. “The French were tired of seeing him win every time and eventually downplayed his success,” claims Mahut. “Now Federer has won, and Wawrinka and Djokoivc, I believe the French public want to see Rafa win... unless he plays a Frenchman, obviously. I hope he has a lot of support because last year was particularly difficult for him. I would really like to see him win for the 10th time this year. It would be an unbelievable, unprecedented achievement and will remain a unique accomplishment.”
Le bras gauche destructeur de Rafael Nadal.
Image credit: Eurosport
Whatever happens during this fortnight, or during whatever time remains before Nadal decides to go fishing on his island and savour his achievements, it frankly matters little. Nine, 10 or 11 titles – it will not affect how Rafa is remembered. Mahut says simply: “Rafa is Roland Garros.” Alex Corretja expands: “I don’t think he needs to win another Roland Garros to prove he is by far the best clay court player in history. If he wins a 10th, it will be the summit but it will not change anything in his life.”
Seven steps to heaven for Rafa Nadal. Seven matches, and one true unknown at the heart of a sport that is at once fantasy and reality. “We all know he is physically vulnerable now,” says Christopher Clarey. Nadal’s biggest asset is also his biggest enemy, as that remarkable body enters its fourth decade. Knee and wrist injuries have disrupted him in recent years, but so far all is well.
“Being the favourite depends on your results and your fitness,” says Corretja. “And if he stays fit, it is very difficult to compete with Rafa in his current form. Look at the Madrid final – Thiem played at a very high level, but in the second set he started to drop physically. This is normal because he played the first set at a very high tempo. Nadal is used to this rhythm but his opponents are not. He drags you into a battle on every point. You can win some battles against him, but in the end he always wins the war. I believe he is ready to win it again.”
(Written by Laurent Vergne and Maxime Dupuis, translation by Alex Chick)