It’s getting harder and harder to define what makes Rafael Nadal so great on clay… which is ironic considering that he has given us over a decade of excellence to study and analyze. A person can watch highlights or read articles until the brain begins to resemble the crushed clay that Nadal has thrived on… and STILL be left wondering: Does a limit to his success actually exist? It takes a particularly special achievement like a potential eleventh Roland Garros title to diminish a week in which Nadal captured his 900th career win and was almost on his way to matching Bjorn Borg’s record of 41 consecutive sets won at Roland Garros. Thanks to a game Argentine named Diego Schwartzman, the record books can save some of their ink budget. Schwartzman and soggy, wet weather could be considered Nadal’s toughest opponents until the upcoming final on Sunday, and still, recorded history will stingily credit him for only one successful set.
So how do we begin to discuss Nadal’s career on clay? We can talk about how he has been a gatekeeper against two all-time greats in an era when the pursuit of a completionist resume has urged athletes to new heights. At the start of 2018 Roland Garros, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic had combined for “only” two Roland Garros titles to deposit in their illustrious trophy cabinets. Federer and Djokovic have two of the highest-regarded styles of play that are successful across all surfaces. They have both beaten Nadal in classic Masters 1000 events on clay. They have both reached multiple Roland Garros finals — at least four, to be even more precise. Saying they are extremely successful tennis players would be an understatement. Yet neither has been able to knock Nadal off in the semifinals or final in France, though both have had a chance in both rounds.
Federer has never been able to defeat Nadal in Paris; his lone title came after Robin Soderling descended like an asteroid from the sky and delivered a big bang to the evolution of the 2009 tournament. Djokovic on the other hand defeated Nadal in Paris in 2015, but in a cruel twist of fate Stan Wawrinka had learned from “failing better” in the previous year’s near-defeats to Djokovic in majors. Stan claimed his second major title to render his first one a year earlier in Australia as “not a fluke.”
In the conversation about Rafa on clay, we can talk about how rare it is for any player to win 10 of anything in tennis, especially within the Open Era. No male had won double-digit titles at a single major before Nadal did it at Roland Garros in 2017. Only Federer and Nadal have reached enough finals at a single event for the option to be fathomable. This achievement alone is special to any person who identifies with the values of Nadal because many predictors figured Nadal would be retired by the age of 27. His “punishing” style of play has been contrasted with Federer’s evergreen durability over time, but both men have aged into being sources of mischief for Father Time. Nadal’s 85 wins and 2 losses at Roland Garros are a testament to his drive, competitiveness, and mental toughness over the years to not only defend titles, but carry on his legacy as well.
Dominic Thiem is hoping that we will talk about what makes Nadal great at clay, but also still a fallible human being. Thiem, who has been hailed as the next great clay-courter, has beaten Nadal on clay three times. Thiem will try to challenge Nadal in the first major final of his young career on Sunday. Nadal leads their head-to-head 6 wins to 3, yet Thiem should not be discouraged. Nadal has looked uncomfortable this fortnight against players who were said to be favorable draws for him. Maximilian Marterer and Simone Bolelli took Nadal to tiebreaks and the above mentioned Schwartzman stole a set.
Looking over photos from earlier in the week, the tensions and doubts in Nadal’s head were apparent. When winning is the only acceptable outcome and the world’s fans and media reinforce that expectation on a daily basis, a sport played by humans and not robots will evoke real-world pressures even for the legends who walk among us… because they still carry human and mortal flesh.
Yet, those doubts Nadal felt — as real as they have been — were distinctly followed by a level of intensity that finally helps one understand how Nadal has continued to endure the different challenges his rivals have thrown at him. Being better than Nadal for 75 or 90 minutes is not the challenge posed by Roland Garros. Being better for three hours or more is the test. This is partly the result of opponents not being able to keep up, but it is much more centrally a result of Nadal solving whatever problem most immediately stares him in the face.
Nadal — like any athlete — is not a doubt-free creature. What he manages to do with very rare exceptions, especially on clay, is to transform doubt into resolve, which enables him to look at a confusing puzzle and make the pieces fit before it’s too late.
As we approach the 2018 Roland Garros final, Thiem will hope to make Nadal as human as possible… and by chance prove that a limit to the powers of Rafa on clay does indeed exist.