Ancient records tell us that the most famous form of bullfighting is the Spanish-style bullfighting.
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A 70-2 win-Loss record at the French Open. Nine Championships, with 363-34 on clay. The name is Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay.
Rafa Nadal is one of the most remarkable male players to have ever played the game on several counts.
In 2014 he became the only man to have won a Grand Slam every year for ten consecutive years. And as if this was not enough, in each of those ten years, he also won at least one Masters 1000 title. Needless to say, he remains alone in achieving this feat.
Just as an aside, he slipped in an Olympic Gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, (defeating Djokovic in the semis) becoming the first ATP top five ranked player to win an Olympic Gold.
Along with Mats Wilander, he remains the only player to have won at least two Grand Slam titles each on hard court, grass and clay. In 2005 he also became the only player other than Wilander, to win the French Open on his first attempt. This year, he equalled Guillermo Vilas’ long standing record of 49 clay court titles.
As I write this, he is preparing to play his heart out in a bid to pick up his 50th.
As tennis lovers, we are certainly blessed to be watching the game in an age that has a Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Nadal playing at the same time, all close to or at the peak of their powers.
Arguably, Federer is at the end of his career with perhaps a last few hurrahs to occur. Djokovic at 29 is still at his best fitness and highest level of tennis. Nadal at the same age, having had phenomenal success early and indeed throughout his career, has abused his body to the hilt.
The comebacks that he makes now, are despite his body, not because of how fit it is.
About a year ago I had the privilege of spending a couple of leisurely hours chatting with the inimitable, and eminently knowledgeable Vijay Amritraj over a few cups of tea. One of the topics we discussed was Nadal.
A comment about Nadal (who incidentally is Vijay’s favourite modern player by a mile) sticks to my mind. He referred to Nadal’s real game being between his ears, and not physically on the court, referring to his amazing mental strength and sheer will to win every time he steps up. Having watched Nadal play through his career, I have no doubt that’s a very acute assessment.
It’s this mental toughness that brings down his opponents when he seems to have all but lost a match. Somehow, somewhere, he manages to fight his way back leaving many an opponent sitting on the loser’s chair with their head between their hands.
So what are Nadal’s chances at this year’s French Open? Given his record in the past two years, probably not much.
The decline started at Wimbledon 2014, when he lost to Aussie teenager Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round. Kyrgios was then ranked in the 140s. It was all downhill for Nadal thereafter, with first a wrist injury and then an appendicitis operation keeping him out of competitive tennis for the rest of the year.
2015 was a year to forget for Rafa.
He made a premature return to tennis at the start of the year, and struggled with his fitness and form. He had a shocking first round defeat to Michael Berrer at the Qatar Open, then early defeats at Indian Wells and Miami, a few quarter final appearances interspersed with some very ordinary results, before losing in straight sets to Andy Murray at the Madrid Open and dropping out of the top five for the first time in ten years.
An early exit at the U.S. Open signalled the end Nadal’s ten-year streak of winning at least one major.
So what’s changed in 2016? Actually a lot.
Rafa in 2016 is on a comeback trail. Notwithstanding a first round exit at the Australian open against Verdasco, he has been a different player from the start of the clay court season. A Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo, flowed by an ATP 500 title at Barcelona signalled the intent of a supremely fit again Nadal V3.0 (given the number of comebacks he has had in recent years!).
He then lost to Murray at the Madrid Open semis, repeating his loss in 2015 finals of the same tournament, the only two times he has lost to Murray on clay. At Rome, the following week, Nadal lost to Djokovic in the quarter finals. But through these wins and losses, he has looked in excellent touch and is at peak fitness. An ominous sign indeed for his opponents.
Clay is Nadal. Nadal is clay. Roland Garros is Nadal’s home. Nadal is her prodigal son.
While the fourth seed at the French Open is not the favourite to win this tournament in 2016 given his track record the past two years, it would take a brave man indeed to write him off.
The sheer joy of watching this genius on the wonderfully bright clay against the imposing backdrop of the tall stands at the court Philippe Chatrier, is an experience unlike any other.
The imposing figure of Nadal at the baseline with that sharp unblinking look and the magical Babolat racquet in hand, waiting to pounce upon the ball and deliver a down the line passing shot kissing the line, or a delectable drop shot at the net, is a nightmare come true for any opponent. And imagine him doing that point after point for three sets (or four or five) until he wears down any opponent in the world, with 14,911 (give or take a few family members and friends of the opponent!) chanting “Rafa”.
While the bookies may tell you differently, the un-smart Money will be on Rafa to be standing at Court Philippe Chatrier and taking the proverbial tenth bite out of the La Coupe des Mousquetaires (The Musketeer’s Trophy) on the Sunday afternoon of June fifth. And we shall be shaking our heads at the sheer genius that we have been privileged to have in our midst for these past so many years.
Once and for all, Rafa Nadal will be confirmed as the greatest men’s player to have ever stepped on a Tennis court.