Clay sculptor

On Sunday Spain’s Rafael ‘Rafa’ Nadal won the French Open tennis tournament beating the Swiss Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1, and in doing so, became the first player in the modern era (which began with the 1968 French Open) to win one Grand Slam singles event ten times – ‘La Decima.’ American Pete Sampras and Swiss Roger Federer’s seven Wimbledon titles, and Serbian Novak Djokovic’s six Australian crowns are next on the list in the Open era.

It was Nadal’s first title at Roland Garros since 2014, having battled injuries for the past three seasons. Wawrinka, a three time Grand Slam was dispatched in two hours and five minutes, as Nadal’s dominance throughout the tournament was completed, as he claimed the most impressive victory of his fifteen Grand Slam winner titles, without dropping a single set and only surrendering 35 games, a feat only surpassed by the Swede Bjorn Borg who lost just 32 games in 1978.

Rafa’s return from injury has led to a very impressive run so far in 2017. The Brisbane Open kicked off the hard court season in the first week of January, with Rafa reaching the quarter-finals. He finished runner-up in the Australian and Mexican Opens, before bowing out in straight sets to his arch rival, Roger Federer in the Sunshine Slam events; fourth round at Indian Wells, California and the final of the Miami Open.

The tennis season then switched continents and surfaces, to the tricky European clay courts which had been dominated by the Argentine Guillermo Vilas in the 1970s, like no other player ‒ that is, until the arrival of Rafa Nadal. On 23rd April, in Monaco, he became the first player in the Open era to conquer one tournament ten times in capturing the Monte Carlo Open, whilst winning his first event for the year. It was his fiftieth clay court title, thus breaking his tie with Vilas for the all-time lead.

A week later, in Spain, he repeated his performance to take his tenth Barcelona Open, his 18th ATP World Tour 500 title, and 71st tour level crown. A fortnight later, still on the Iberian Peninsula, he defeated Djokovic 6-2, 6-4 in the semi-finals of the Madrid Open, to end a seven match losing streak, and set up a date with the Austrian Dominic Thiem. His subsequent 7-6, 6-4 victory tied Djokovic’s record of 30 1000 Master singles titles. A few days later, Thiem reversed the result with a 6-4, 6-3 win in the quarter-finals of the Italian Open in Rome, to curtail Rafa’s 17 match win streak on clay.

So where does Sunday’s record ‘La Decima’ victory place Rafa in tennis history? His record at Roland Garros where he has never lost a final can be cast (ironically) in stone. In 2005, as a teenager, he emulated the Swede Mats Wilander by winning the tournament on his first attempt. A year later, he became the first player to defeat Federer in a Grand Slam final, and repeated the feat in 2007 to deny him a coveted Grand Slam title. In 2008, he completed the hat trick of final victories over Federer in an hour and forty-six minutes.

In 2009, Nadal suffered a surprise defeat to the Swede Robin Soderling in the quarter-finals in Paris to send shock waves throughout the tennis world. Rafa then reeled off five consecutive championships from 2010-2014, disposing of Soderling, Federer, Djokovic, fellow Spaniard David Ferrer and Djokovic, in the respective finals. He stumbled in the 2015 quarter-finals to Djokovic, then withdrew before the third round of the 2016 event with a wrist injury.

How difficult is the French Open to win when compared to the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Opens? It is the only Grand Slam tournament still entirely open to the elements. “It’s hard. If it gets like that [waiting for the rain to stop] you get no rhythm. As the only Grand Slam tournament without a roof, it is the only one where the conditions can totally vary from hour to hour, day to day. At Wimbledon if it is slightly wet you don’t even play the match. At the French Open you need to just get on with it and somehow adjust…” according to seven time Grand Slam winner Swede Mats Wilander, who burst on to the scene as a 17 year-old beating Vilas for the first of his three French Open titles. He should know, after all, only Nadal and he have won at least two Grand Slams on all three surfaces in the modern era.

The list of tennis legends who have failed to complete the career Grand Slam, stumbling and fumbling at Roland Garros includes Arthur Ashe, Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors, Stefan Edberg, John Newcombe and Sampras. Rafa’s record is beginning to look like one of those for the ages.

Where does Rafa fit in the list of tennis greats in the Open era? The southpaw is now second on the all-time list of Grand Slam winners, behind (the still active) Federer’s eighteen titles, having just broken his tie with Sampras’ fourteen. Two Wimbledon and US Open crowns and a 2009 Australian title puts him in the very elite group with Australian Rod Laver, American Andre Agassi, Federer and Djokovic, as having won the career Grand Slam in the modern era, with Nadal being the youngest to accomplish the feat at the age of 24 years and 101 days.

Nadal won at least one Grand Slam event every year from 2005 to 2014, the only player to ever complete a ten year streak. Bjorn Borg, American Pete Sampras and Federer managed streaks of eight. He is the only player in the Open era to win the French, Wimbledon and US titles in a single year, accomplishing the trick in 2010.

The tennis season now shifts to the grass courts of England with the Queen’s Club championships beginning on Monday and the Championships at Wimbledon, a fortnight later. Can the 31 year-old Nadal reach a sixth Wimbledon final, despite not having passed the fourth round since 2011? World’s number one Scotsman Andy Murray and Djokovic, semi-finalist and quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, respectively have struggled of late, and the 35 year-old fox Federer has not played since the Miami Open appear to be the main opponents in Nadal’s path to a sixteenth Grand Slam title.

Tennis fans are eagerly awaiting the fortnight of tennis from the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Perhaps we might be lucky to see a repeat of arguably the greatest final ever played, the 2008 match in which Nadal defeated Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.

Rafa will be his usual self, slashing, and dashing all over the court playing at full throttle, his place in tennis history already assured.

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