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Rafael Nadal: King of Clay

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Rafael Nadal won his 11th French Open title today.

That sentence is crazy, it seems impossible.

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But it’s Rafa. And it’s clay. And it’s Paris.

Eleven.

Consider:

Nadal has a career 91.9 % winning rate on clay.

He’s won one out of every five French Opens ever contested.

He’s won Monte Carlo and Barcelona 10 times each. Nadal is the only man in the Open Era to win any event 10 times — and he’s done it at three different clay court events.

He’s the only man in tennis history to win the same Grand Slam title 11 times. Nadal’s 11 French Opens put him alongside Margaret Court as the only players, male or female, to win the same Grand Slam title 11 times (she won 11 Australian Opens).

He’s won more ATP clay-court titles than anyone else in the Open Era. Nadal’s 56 career clay court titles is an Open Era record; the previous record-holder was Guillermo Vilas, with 49.

He’s 86–2 at the French Open. Nadal has lost just two matches in his career at Roland Garros: in the fourth round in 2009, to Robin Soderling; and in the quarterfinals in 2015, to Novak Djokovic.

He holds 17 major titles, second only to Roger Federer’s record 20. Federer holds 8 Wimbledon titles and has forsaken the clay season in a bid for another title on the grass.

Nadal has also won a record 32 Masters 1000 titles.

In April 2018, Nadal became the first player, male or female, to amass 400+ match wins on both hard and clay courts with 425 and 400, respectively.

He is also the first, and only male player to date, to win three consecutive Grand Slam tournaments on three different surfaces (clay, grass and hardcourt) in the same year (2010).

I have been an unabashed and fervent Rafa fan since I first saw him win Paris in 2005. He was 19, a charming boy, with long hair and pirate pants. He was also a ferocious and electrifying competitor, his presence on the court riveting for hours. Speedy and athletic, on his knees for shots at the baseline, and whipping his arm over his head to bend it like the soccer player he is, Rafa was mesmerizing. Tennis fans — sports fans — fell hard and many of us never looked away.

First French Open victory, first try (Reuters image)

The doubters and the killjoys dismissed the Spanish boy wonder as a “dirtballer,” a one-dimensional player who would never have what it takes to succeed on all courts. 13 years later, the stats tell the story. In addition to his 11 French titles, he has 2 Wimbledon titles (defeating Federer, the king of grass, for one of them), 3 US Open titles, and 1 Australian Open crown.

The red clay is his home, though, his natural habitat and he continues to astonish with his dominance. Many had written his career obituary a few years ago, after injuries and flagging confidence dimmed his star. He’s too much of a grinder, the knees can’t stand it, he’s going to burn out early, they said. They were wrong and it’s delicious.

His victory celebration today was muted. He didn’t fall to the red earth and ruin his outfit, like so many years before. He has always been a class act, gracious in victory and defeat, and today was no different. His emotion suggested that he may be wondering if this is the last, but that seemed the case last year when he won the 10th. And the year before.

Who wins 10? Who wins 11?

Will he — can he — win more? As Rafael Nadal is showing us (and as Federer is also showing, with his late career resurgence), never say never. I’ll watch as long as he plays and tennis will be bereft when he stops. Long live the king.

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