It was the summer of 2005 in Paris. A 19-year old Spaniard was making his debut at the French Open.
Ranked world number 5 at that time in his first semi-final, the boy stunned the supreme Roger Federer on his path to a career Grand Slam. The very first bite on the Coupe des Mousquetaires after he overcame Argentine Mariano Puerta a couple days later signaled the beginning of a love story – the adulation being unparalleled – that perhaps reached its zenith last Sunday at Philippe-Chatrier.
Rafa Nadal – the left handed racqueeter from Mallorca – will definitely go down in the history as the greatest of the greats that took court at the Parisian clay and more categorically on red bowls all across the globe. With some mind-boggling numbers on claycourts that perhaps look beyond the extra-terrestrials from a Hollywood script, any voice of dissent regarding the “God of clay” now would be an unpardoned blasphemy.
All of us who have followed the game in the second half of the first decade of this century, we all know how a phenomenon of Federer struck the court as a tornado. And the counter-hurricane to it was Nadal. The 15-Slam winner literally bashed the Swiss legend in three straight finals at the French capital after his initial hurray I started this piece with. The Swiss could take a set in 2006 and 2007 finals as he did in the 2005 semis, but the 2008 version of the bull was more raging. Nadal conceded just four games in that final against Federer – even handed a humiliating bagel to his nemesis in the final set. A couple of weeks later, Nadal – who did not drop a set at Paris for the first time – would end Federer’s SW19 honeymoon and win his maiden Wimbledon after ending up with consecutive plates at the prestigious all-white event since 2006.
Two years back from now, Nadal was plagued by career-threatening injuries that kept recuperating as he was beaten for the only second time at his fief by Novak Djokovic to cut short of his dreams of a La Decima. Last year too, he had a good run on clay leading up to his favourite Slam, but he was forced to give a walkover in the early stages of the tournament. Djokovic completed his career Slam in his absence very much like the way Federer did when Robin Soderling hunted the ailing Nadal in the summer of 2009. Although, Djokovic has the solace of knocking out the Paris favourite in straight sets even it was for once.
Nadal won four straight French Open between 2005 and 2008 and his early 2009 ouster kept intact Bjorn Borg’s 1978-81 streak intact much like the Spaniard himself kept the Swede’s five straight Wimbledon wins from getting overhauled by keeping Federer away just a year earlier. After an injury lay-off, Nadal stormed back into the circuit re-capturing his fifth French before going on to complete his career Grand Slam – the youngest to do so – winning the US Open in 2010 and a total of three majors for the only time in a season.
The man who turned 31 during the course of his successful Decima campaign would reach many a major finals between the Garros in 2011-12 only to be thwarted by Djokovic – but not at Paris, where he has been beyond the reach of mere mortals. Nadal – who would add USO to his French for 2013 as he would finally tame the Serbian at a Grand Slam outside clay – in my opinion, created a freak out of himself when he would win his ninth French title in 2014. It was his fifth on the trot and finally it ended that streak of Borg which Nadal failed to snap five years back. I reckon that some men are more than corporeal and thus make their own second chances.
But the fall came right after the historic feat. Injuries and dip in form marred the Spanish armada as Nadal went sans a major in 2015 for the first time since 2005 – he was the only male singles player to win a Grand Slam for 10 straight years. The voices of dissent kept growing louder and the chances for the tenth French looked to fade away in the din. A Grand Slam final in almost three years at the Australian Open raised the hope for the elusive 15th that would break the tie with Pete Sampras – but Federer too trying a comeback changed the script with his “Bel18ve”. The red dirt pumped up the prodigy for his “G10ry” and the man won his first Slam in three years and too in style without dropping a set.
The other time Nadal won all his matches at Roland Garros in straight sets, each time he had gone on to win at the All-England club. It happened in 2008 and 2010. The rejuvenated Federer who skipped Paris to prepare his charge for an eighth feat at Wimbledon must better read the omens carefully. For the man, who kept his Paris bastion intact for a decade amidst the dream run of Federer and later Djokovic, is also good at directing his paws outside clay especially when he is in such incredible touch.
To win a single Grand Slam is a feat in itself and to think of ten from one in this era of professionalism would have been beyond imagination had not Rafa existed and with him his beloved Roland Garros. And to make the affair memorable, wish to hear something like “Rafa Garros” or “Coupe des Nadal” in future. For this new God of Paris can certainly rise over the four musketeers.
Photo by Carine06