Dominant athletes are elemental, and their opponents swim against a riptide. No matter how many rivals attempt to try to break free of a champion’s reign, that dominant force almost always prevails.
Take, for example, Rafael Nadal’s play on clay courts. On the terre battue, he’s arguably been better than anyone on their best surface. During the Open Era, only one player has won a given tournament more than eight times – Nadal, who has won three clay events nine times each, including the French Open. He’s won 91 percent of his clay court matches, and prior to 2015, he defeated Top-10 rivals in 70 of 79 contests on the red dirt. Sure, Pete Sampras captured seven Wimbledon crowns and won 83 percent of his matches on the low-bouncing greenery, and 17-time Grand Slam titlist Roger Federer has earned seven major championships on grass himself, but perhaps only Martina Navratilova’s nine Wimbledon wins can match Nadal’s accomplishments.
“Rafa is by far the greatest clay court player in my generation and arguably the best of all time,” 2016 French Open entrant Brian Baker says. “Rafa always had that aura of invincibility on clay, and that could easily have an opponent thinking he had no chance to win.”
That is why Nadal’s play on clay last season was startling. The Mallorcan won just two clay court titles for the first time since 2004 and lost four of his six matches against the Top 10, with each defeat coming in straight sets.
Perhaps the most deflating came at his castle on the grounds of Roland Garros, Court Philippe Chatrier. In the past, Nadal could play somewhere between second and third gear and still Rocky Balboa his way to a win in Paris. Only one person previously beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open – Robin Soderling played a free-swinging match in 2009 to do so – but things were different last year at the clay court major.
In the quarterfinals, a familiar opponent in Novak Djokovic was across the net. Nadal had beaten the Serbian in all six of their previous matchups at the French Open, dropping only four total sets along the way. But now down to number seven in the rankings, Nadal was not the clear favorite on his court for arguably the first time since he was a teen.
The end result? 7-5, 6-3, 6-1, Djokovic.
Djokovic was the riptide, and Nadal was left treading water. For the first time since 2005, he sunk to tenth in the rankings.
“I thought that he was going to really start sliding further,” ESPN tennis analyst and former world No. 4 Brad Gilbert says.
But this year, Nadal has battled back. After returning to the top five with a strong fall season, the 29-year-old shrugged off a first round loss at the Australian Open to win 24 of his next 30 matches, with one of those losses via retirement in Miami and two more coming against Djokovic. Nadal’s 13-match winning streak during that span was his longest since 2013, when he won 22 straight to reclaim the Number One ranking. Nadal was second in the 2016 year-to-date rankings until last week in Rome, when Andy Murray crept ahead by virtue of winning the ATP Masters 1000 tournament, defeating Djokovic 6-3, 6-3 in the final.
“Rafa is starting to play better and better, winning Monte Carlo, Barcelona, even the way he played in Madrid,” Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob says. “I think he’s very close to being exactly where he needs to be in order to try and win his tenth French Open. He’s hitting his backhand better, he’s taking it earlier, his court position is better, his forehand is more explosive. He’s playing more relaxed and more energetic.”