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Clay court king 'impossible' to dethrone in Paris

Updated: 2024-05-24 09:38
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Rafael Nadal leaving the court after a practice session in Paris on Tuesday. AFP

When a weary David Ferrer managed to win just five games in his French Open semifinal loss to Rafael Nadal in 2012, he was in no doubt over the enormity of the challenge.

"Winning a match against Rafa at Roland Garros is almost impossible," admitted a bamboozled Ferrer as he trudged off Court Philippe Chatrier.

It would have been no consolation to the gritty Ferrer that at least he won one more game than Roger Federer managed in the 2008 final against Nadal.

On the red courts of Roland Garros, hardly anyone has laid a glove on the Spaniard.

Since his swashbuckling title-winning debut in the French capital in 2005, he has racked up 14 titles, winning 112 matches and losing just three.

Two of those defeats came against Novak Djokovic — in the last-eight in 2015 and semifinals in 2021.

Sweden's Robin Soderling had been the first to pierce the Nadal armor in 2009. Nadal avenged that last-16 loss 12 months later in the final.

The only other time Nadal was thwarted in Paris was 2016, when a wrist injury forced a withdrawal after the second round.

In 2005, when he won the French Open at his first attempt, he was just two days past his 19th birthday.

He will turn 38 a week on Monday, although the legacy of recent injuries may yet shatter his dream of a farewell performance in the French capital.

When Nadal captured his record-extending 14th French Open in 2022, he was the tournament's oldest champion at 36.

It was a feat achieved despite daily painkilling injections to numb crippling pain in his foot.

Nadal made his Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon as a raw 17-year-old in 2003, but it was his maiden appearance in Paris that had fans drooling.

His 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 win in the final against unheralded Mariano Puerta of Argentina made him the first man since Mats Wilander 23 years earlier to triumph in the French capital at the first attempt.

'Like a war'

Nadal won 11 titles in 2005, eight of them on clay including the prestigious Masters' in Monte Carlo and Rome.

Entering Paris, he was on a 17-match win streak and was drawn to face Germany's Lars Burgsmuller in the first round.

"I remember that I was a little sad about the draw," Burgsmuller, ranked 96 at the time, told USA Today in 2015.

"Everyone was talking about him. Everyone knew that he would be very, very good."

Nadal would go on to claim the French Open title in each of the next three years, beating Federer in the final on all three occasions.

In the 2008 championship match, Nadal allowed his great Swiss rival just four games.

That year, he didn't drop a set. Compatriots Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro, both top 25 players, were allowed just three games apiece in their respective last 16 and quarterfinal eviscerations.

In 2017 and 2020, Nadal again swept to the title without dropping a set.

Incredibly, in his 115 matches at Roland Garros, Nadal has been pushed to five sets on only three occasions. He won all three.

"With Rafa on clay in a best-of-five (format), it's like a war," said Nadal's coach Carlos Moya.

John McEnroe, who fought legendary battles with six-time Roland Garros champion Bjorn Borg, was able to compare eras.

"I know when Borg played in my day he was like the human backboard," said McEnroe.

"He was faster than everyone, fitter than everyone, and you couldn't get a ball by the guy.

"I saw guys get exhausted in the first set. Like the best clay court players in the world, it's the same thing when you play Nadal. This guy, he comes to play every match. This is a guy that just doesn't give it away."


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