The culmination of the clay court season, the French Open, provided a most fitting stage for the greatest clay court player of all time to demonstrate why that honor is his and his alone.
Their can be no further debate. Nadal is the GOAT (greatest of all time) on red clay.
And what could be more appropriate than the unrivaled best proving his dominance at Roland Garros in front of the French.
After all, the French, thankfully, invented the fabulous game of tennis. They certainly deserved to see the best at his best, shattering yet another record by becoming the only man in history to win seven French Open titles.
Nadal’s clay court season was nothing short of astonishing. It was clear from the opening bell in Monte Carlo that “the soldier” was on a mission.
He did not drop a set on his way to winning that tournament for the eighth consecutive time. Winning eight straight years is remarkable but not dropping a set along the way, well that’s statistically staggering
“The soldier” then marched into Barcelona and won the Barcelona Open for the seventh consecutive time again refusing to surrender a single set.
The man is just flat stingy when it comes to points, games, sets, and matches. His focus and determination border on being maniacal.
The only hiccup to what would probably have been a perfect clay court season occurred in Madrid in Ion Tiriac’s tournament which debuted the dreaded blue clay.
Following vociferous complaints from a number of the top players, both Nadal and Djokovic lost in the mid-rounds on the less than ideal, slippery surface of blue.
The soldier vented by marching into and right through the draw in the BNL d’Italia in Rome. Need I even say it? No, but I will. He didn’t drop a set there either.
Though opinions were split, Nadal was still favored to win the French.
There were multiple story lines. Could Federer maintain his good form on clay? Could Murray under the influence of coach Ivan Lendl rise to a new level? Could a Frenchman, namely Tsonga break through and win one for the win starved French? Or finally, could Djokovic again spoil the party for Nadal by beating him in a fourth straight slam and for the eighth time in a final?
A win by Djokovic would have made him the first man since the great Rod Laver to hold all four slams simultaneously.
The pressure on all was monstrous. But that’s exactly what made for such compelling theatre.
The French love drama and their man Tsonga gave them plenty of it by coming within a whisker of defeating Djokovic in the quarterfinals. It was clearly one of the best matches of Tsonga’s career .
But in the end, despite inspiring comebacks by Federer against del Potro and Djokovic against Tsonga, who held four match points in the fourth set of their quarterfinal match, it was Nadal who ultimately prevailed to break the tie of six French Opens shared with Bjorn Borg.
A brief glimpse of Borg revealed a man that did not look at all happy about Nadal’s record setting victory. I dunno, maybe he just had a bit of indigestion or something. He did look a little queasy.
Now, how is it possible for a man to have lost seven straight finals, three of which were slams, all to the same guy (Djokovic) and emerge from such a protracted drubbing unscathed and undeterred?
To say that the answer is both simple and complex could not be more contradictory. But that is the reality.
The first simple thing that Nadal did was to alter his instinctively defensive play to incorporate more offense. He recognized that Djokovic’c dominance was in large part because he was dictating play. Djokovic imposed his will by standing on or inside the baseline taking balls early or at the very least, at the apex of the bounce.
To negate that tactical advantage, Nadal began gradually playing closer to the baseline instead of his normal 5-10 feet behind it.
That brought about two immediate changes. First, his shots began landing deeper in the opponents court which made his wicked topspin even more lethal.
Secondly, since closer, he found himself often able to step inside the baseline causing a role reversal. No longer was he the “dictatee,” rather, he became the dictator.
Next, simple but true, Nadal does not quit. He wins. He wins a lot. Not to beleaguer the point, but he wins most of the time he plays. He has that history upon which to draw whenever the need arises.
When a player succeeds repeatedly as has Nadal, he develops an inherent belief that he will do so again. And so he does. No mystery there.
The more complex component is Nadal’s mental resiliency. As previously stated, he reacts to a loss very differently than many. Instead of feeling devastated or deflated, he uses the loss as a source of motivation to drive him towards further improvement.
Handling loss can be done destructively or constructively. Nadal’s approach is constructive. Instead of getting mad, he gets busy, busy making adjustments that will negate undesirable outcomes.
He has continually demonstrated a remarkable ability to both improve technical aspects of his game as well as strategical tactics.
One need only study his initial emergence onto the professional tour and the ceaseless metamorphosis since.
Finally, Rafael Nadal is blessed with an indomitable spirit. He doesn’t have a morsel of defeatist within his psyche.
I suppose it’s possible that Rafa might be genetically predisposed to success on red clay. Regardless, he’s still human. As such he has weaknesses and foibles as all mortals do.
But he does not allow those things to deter him from his mission.
Soldiers do that. They march into battle and strive relentlessly to emerge victorious. The mission becomes their obsession.
So, that’s how he did it. Armed with fundamental tactical changes in his game, bolstered with the knowledge of a multitude of previous successes, and with an ironclad will, he set out on a mission beginning in Monte Carlo and proceeding through Europe with the ultimate goal of an assault on Roland Garros, the French Open and tennis history.
And assault it he did.
Rafael Nadal is no longer just “the soldier” of red clay. He’s the undisputed master of that surface.
Rafa is the ruler.
He’s a one-man army. He’s the GOAT on red clay.
He’s General Rafael Nadal.