Last year there was La Decima. This year is the “Once Ownership Odyssey,” Nadal’s pursuit of 11 titles at three different tournaments — he is 2 for 2 at Monte Carlo and Barcelona and has Roland Garros squarely in his sights. Yet, while “11” is the number most people are talking about in the Nadal universe, and while he has won 77 singles titles to tie John McEnroe for fourth in the Open Era, another number needs to be included in the conversation about Rafa.
One number you might be thinking of: 17, which would be the amount of major titles Rafa would attain if he wins in Roland Garros, as everyone expects him to. That’s a good answer and one which is connected to an empirical fact. However, it’s not the number I was thinking of.
The number: 5.
In the United States, it is both odd yet real that Cinco de Mayo — often mislabeled as Mexico’s Independence Day (it’s not) — has become a big deal. Yes, Cinco de Mayo is an excuse for Mexican restaurants in the United States to have big parties and sell a lot of drinks. Yes, Cinco de Mayo is a way for Corona to sell a truckload of beer (cerveza) and for other companies to make a buck, but even those commercial realities don’t quite explain why a victory in a military battle — by the Mexican army over the French in the Battle of Puebla — has been absorbed into the American cultural bloodstream. Mexico’s actual Independence Day is September 16, which suggests that Cinco de Mayo (May 5) — coming before the summer instead of at the end of it — is a more convenient time to throw a big party. That detail might provide a better answer, but the popularity in America of Cinco de Mayo remains a mystery in certain ways.
Over the coming weeks, we will see if Rafael Nadal will throw a much less mysterious tennis party, a celebration unlike anything the sport has ever seen.
In 2010, Rafa won Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, sweeping the three clay Masters 1000 events and then winning the French Open.
In Barcelona, he withdrew from the tournament.
In 2013, Rafa won Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, and Roland Garros… but in the Monte Carlo final, Novak Djokovic snapped Rafa’s 46-match winning streak at that tournament.
EIGHT times, Nadal has won four of the most prominent events in the clay season, keeping in mind the fact that through 2008, Hamburg was the third clay Masters event. In 2009, Madrid replaced Hamburg as the third clay Masters event, with Hamburg becoming a 500 tournament in July and Shanghai replacing Madrid in the fall Masters lineup on hardcourts. (Madrid had been an indoor October tournament through 2008.)
The full list of Nadal’s “foursomes” on clay:
2005-2007, 2012: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Roland Garros
2008: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Hamburg (in the last year Hamburg was a Masters event), Roland Garros
2010: Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros, his only sweep of the three clay Masters plus Paris
2013: Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros
2017: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Roland Garros
This is an extraordinary record of clay-court achievement. There’s no need for hyperbole or embellishment when these results so powerfully speak for themselves.
And yet… as great as The Greatest Clay-Court Player Of All Time has indeed been in his shimmering career, one piece of the clay-court puzzle has always eluded him.
From 2005-2007, it was Hamburg. In 2012, Madrid. In 2008 and 2017, it was Rome. In 2010, Barcelona. In 2013, Monte Carlo.
Nadal has never won all five tournaments in the same clay season. He has never been able to stand on the victory podium in Paris — on Court Philippe Chatrier — on a June Sunday and stage his “Cinco de Junio” party for the ages.
This year won’t be his last chance to make a run at this special “cinco” celebration, but it might be his best… and yet, with the Spaniard about to turn 32, he has to know that registering a one-of-a-kind tennis achievement will exact a cost when the tour moves to grass and hardcourts. It is a first-world tennis problem for Rafa, the kind of problem only an icon in the midst of a highly prosperous period can confront, but it nevertheless injects a dose of drama into what has been a relatively drama-free ATP clay-court season.
The question is simple, but it points to a delicious tension in these upcoming weeks in Madrid and Rome: If Nadal wins both Madrid and Rome, will the best-of-five arena at Roland Garros make Nadal more vulnerable to injury or fatigue? The answer is likely to be yes, but a deeper reality makes the question more intriguing: The ATP is a mess right now.
Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic obviously represent the two most formidable obstacles to Nadal on clay IF they are relatively healthy and in form… but neither are close to being their best right now. Diego Schwartzman is mired in misery. Hyeon Chung hasn’t been able to play tennis, period. Juan Martin del Potro and Stan Wawrinka will play Madrid, but it is easy to be skeptical about the ability of either man to be physically and mentally ready to be at their best in Paris. David Goffin might be the best and most reasonable choice as a Nadal slayer at this point, but even he is still working his way back from the eye injury he suffered in February in Rotterdam against Grigor Dimitrov.
If ever there was a time for Nadal to destroy the field and win all five of the clay events he enters this spring, this is it. More precisely, if ever there was a time for Nadal to win matches quickly and convincingly — thereby preserving his fuel tank for Paris — this is likely his best opening.
Plenty of Nadal fans and a reasonable number of neutral observers think Rafa should skip Rome. He very likely won’t, and plenty of “Nadalogists” certainly think he should play Rome and go for the “Cinco de Junio” this year to further burnish his all-time clay-court credentials. The point of this column is not to say or even suggest that one side is “right” and the other “wrong.” The purpose of this piece is to merely remind readers of what’s at stake in the coming weeks, and to note that while Nadal is cruising, the drama of the clay season is about to intensify — not within the context of French Open drama, but within the context of whether Rafa can eat the ultimate Fiesta Platter, with five different flavors of championships on the same very heavy plate.
Nadal and his fans must both confront this question if he wins Madrid: “If given a choice between Cinco de Junio and a more realistic chance at Wimbledon, which is more personally important?” The answer is not what matters here; merely wrestling with the question is what Rafa ought to consider in a few weeks.