As the fluorescent colored ball kissed the outer end of the red dirt or terre battue of the famous Philippe Chatrier court, there was a hushed silence for a moment, and the lines judge didn’t call it out! Exactly, at that moment history was made, the man who was serving, sunk down to his knees, gave out a grin and threw out his muscular arms with his index fingers pointed towards the red Parisian clay in jubilation. Yes, Rafael Nadal won, his 13th Roland Garros title in 15 years, his 100th French Open match win among his 102 matches played, his 999th ATP tour level victory and a record equaling 20th Grand Slam, tying him with Roger Federer for the highest number of Major victories.
Let’s trace the journey of this man, who since the last 15 years made Parisian red dirt his stomping ground. It’s a story of a 19-year-old kid turning into a legend, who made the most remarkable winning streak in the history of not only tennis, but the world of sports.
It was in the year 2005 when a long haired left-handed dicey young teenager wearing sleeveless tees and dinosaur pants debuted in the French Open. In the final match, he took over Mariano Puerta from Argentina to become the first player since Mats Wilander to win the title at his first attempt. He was also the youngest player since Michael Chang won it in 1989. But little did the world knew that what started as a stream would one day take the form of an ocean. 2006 would see the then current World No. 1, Roger Federer, getting defeated at the hands of this left-handed phenomenon, Rafael Nadal. The following year, Nadal repeated this feat to win three consecutive French Open titles and denied Roger Federer a French Open and a chance to hold all the four slams together in a calendar year twice. And 2008 was no exception, 12 times grand slam winner Roger Federer and world number one was left biting the red dirt as Rafael Nadal took his fourth consecutive French Open title and handed over Federer, his most humiliating career defeat with a score line of 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, the first time Federer got a bagel in any Grand Slam tournament. Then came 2009, one of the worst years in the tennis career of Nadal, when his personal problems overflew into his professional life. That was an exceptional year, when Nadal tested one of his only two defeats in French Open among the 102 matches he played there. World No. 25, Swedish Robin Soderling, sent shockwaves across the tennis world as he sent the four times consecutive French Open Champion and the then current World No. 1 packing out of French Open in the fourth round in four sets. It was Nadal’s first defeat in French Open and his first defeat in best of five set matches on clay. As with all brute forces of nature, you can tame the very best for some time, but eventually they find their way out. Thus, it was in 2010, when Rafa (Rafael Nadal) had his sweet revenge on Soderling as he defeated the Swedish player in straight sets and reclaimed his ATP World No. 1. From 2010 to 2014, Nadal continued his most dominant streak in French Open, by winning it five consecutive times, surpassing Bjorn Borg’s record of winning it a record four times in a row. In 2011, he tied with Bjorg’s record of highest number of French Open titles while defeating Roger Federer yet again in the French Open final, and in 2012 he set his own record of the highest number of French Open titles. His respective opponents in 2012, 2013 and 2014 were Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer and Novak Djokovic. The Spanish Armada of Nadal was stopped finally in 2015, only after winning a record breaking five consecutive times. Six long years passed since Nadal was last defeated at the hands of Soderling when finally, at the quarter finals of French Open, he was defeated at the hands of his nemesis, Novak Djokovic, ending Nadal’s streak of 39 unbeaten matches. That would be the last time Nadal taste defeat at French Open, completing the list of only two matches that he conceded defeat among the 102 matches he played there. It was followed by another agonizing year of 2016, when he had to retire from French open with a wrist injury, the first time in his career. As a thundering river can’t be stopped, it can only be halted, so Nadal rediscovered his winning ways and bounced back to French Open glory from 2017. He won his 10th French Open in style, he won it without dropping a set for the third time in his career, a record which tied him with Bjorn Borg. The following three years were also not any exception to this routine affair of Nadal winning the French Open. For four straight years 2017-2020, he repeated his four consecutive French Open winning streak, which he did previously during 2005-2008. The runner ups who were humbled in front of the phenomenon called Rafael Nadal from 2017-2020 were Stanislas Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem in 2018 and 2019 both and Novak Djokovic in 2020. This completes the journey of this little boy from Mallorca island, Spain to the global icon of the world with a jaw dropping 13 French Open in his pocket.
Record books fall short to describe what this man has achieved in all these years. He is the first man to win five Grand Slams beyond the age of 30, the second man to win Grand Slams in his teens, twenties and thirties. His 81-match unbeaten streak on clay court is the most dominant by any player on a surface. No other player has ever won 13 titles in any particular tournament in the history of tennis. He is the only player in history to have four consecutive wins at any tennis tournaments thrice, from 2005-2008, from 2010-2014 and from 2017-2020. His two greatest rivals, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, won their only French Open, the years in which Nadal was not in the finals. Nadal has never been defeated in a French Open final, he has never been stretched to a five-setter in any of his 13 finals. The list of his records can go on and on.
But today let’s give the record books a rest, let’s first sink in the feeling of the event that’s unfurling. The day when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary climbed the Everest, the world around was not thinking about the 8848 metres climbed up, but they were gasping in awe about raw human courage, grit, determination. Today, as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both climbed up the Everest of tennis glory, we must let the record-books rest and record this rarest of rare achievement of human tenacity, passion, dedication and glory. The organizers of French Open might as well consider renaming Roland Garros as Rafa Garros!
-Aishik Bhattacharya (Opinion Writer at IndianFolk.com, Senior Research Fellow at IACS Kolkata)
Picture Credits: AFP / foxsports.com