Rafael Nadal needs scant promotion as the start of the French Open bears down on us. Any doubts about Nadal's future as the man with a stranglehold (instead of that familiar, playful bite) on the French Open trophy were laid to rest these past few weeks. All that talk about Novak Djokovic pulling the clay out from under Nadal's feet? Oh, how quaintly 2011 it was.
That particular threat has been dismissed as if by one of those wicked Nadal forehand cuts that ends with a helicopter flourish. So here we are again, with absolutely nothing to suggest that Rafa won't sashay out there next week and inflict a painful whipping on the first of the seven doomed men he will dismiss en route to his seventh Roland Garros title. That would break his tie with Bjorn Borg (six titles in eight appearances), and also allow Nadal to build on his superior winning percentage.
We used to marvel at the fact that Borg lost just two matches in those eight tournaments at Roland Garros (as if that weren't amazing enough, he lost both those matches to the same man, Italy's Adriano Panatta, who Steve Tignor wrote about last week). Nadal has lost just once (to Robin Soderling, 2009), and he was physically impaired at the time. To borrow a line from a popular country song, "That's my asterisk (story) and I'm sticking to it."
Most of you are familiar with these details, but there's "meta" and then there's "meta," if you know what I mean. And in that regard I find Nadal's accomplishments even more astonishing when you expand the big picture to the really big picture. Which, in this case, gets into the history of the clay-court game.
Borg's reign on clay ended in 1981, just three years after the Prince over-sized racquet, in the hands of U.S. Open finalist Pam Shriver, rocked and began to shape the future of tennis. In the ensuing years, 15 different men won the French Open, none more often than a trio of three-time champions, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, and Gustavo Kuerten.
Additionally, the only men to win back-to-back French Open titles in that period were Lendl, Jim Courier, Sergi Burguera, and Kuerten — and among them only Kuerten won more than two titles at Roland Garros. The four years before Nadal won his first French produced four different champions; starting in 2001 they were Kuerten, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Gaston Gaudio.
By the time Gaudio won in 2004, the French Open already had a highly-developed reputation as the least predictable of Grand Slam events, or the major most likely to cough up a champion who, if not exactly suspect, was neither a clay-court expert nor necessarily a man destined or even able to win multiple Grand Slam titles. While the trophy-class of players at the U.S. Open or Wimbledon was a limited cast of characters, it seemed that anyone could win the French.
There were solid, well thought out, inter-related reasons for this. The men's field was getting deeper and deeper. At the same time, advances in racquet and string technology gave everyone a boost of power and a more lethal return game. Combine these comparably superior and fit athletes with more powerful weapons, and put them to work on a relatively slow court, and it was a bit like tennis roulette.
It seemed that Roland Garros had been transformed from the tournament that only the best and most consistent players could win into the one that anybody could win. And that was only heightened by the fact that so many of its more successful players were developed on clay in emerging tennis nations like Spain, Sweden, France, and Argentina. When you looked back upon the Borg years, you were apt to think, "We'll not see the likes of him again. . ."
And when Bruguera, who had even more radical technique than Borg, was unable to add to his Roland Garros haul of two, it seemed that the days when style-of-play and particularly vicious topspin might yield a huge advantage were definitely over.
Well, Nadal has exposed all that as just so much fancy-pants theorizing, and accomplished something not very many coaches or former players might have thought possible: He re-defined the French Open as a tournament that could be dominated, mastered by a man with a specific (if unconventional) set of tools. I rate that very high among the intangibles that season our appreciation of a player and his accomplishments.
Much like his great rival in history, Borg, Nadal brought to the game a new, radical style — and he did it at a time when most of us thought we had seen it all. Both of these men were designed to win on clay from the ground up; it was obvious in their myriad physical gifts, their mentality, and those unusual strokes in which the only real point of commonality is a heavy reliance on topspin. Yet I don't think anyone could see Nadal coming, and it seems to confirm the idea that the game isn't really about surface speeds, technology, match-ups, or one-handed versus two-handed backhands; it's about superior individuals who find a way — sometimes an almost absurdly unfamiliar and certainly not always a merely "mental" way — to impose their will and dominate until laid low by the sword of time.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
There's one other dimension to consider when you compare the success of the two titans of clay, and that's the casualty list of their opponents. In his six finals, Nadal had four wins over Roger Federer, the all-time Grand Slam champion in men's singles and inarguably the second-best player (after Nadal) on clay. His other final-round wins were over Robin Soderling, in a bit of revenge, and Mariano Puerta, who was later suspended for doping.
By contrast, Borg took just one title from a truly elite player, and that was Ivan Lendl, whom the Swede mastered (albeit in five tough sets) in his final year at Roland Garros, 1981. Borg won his other titles, working backwards from '81, over Vitas Gerulaitis, Victor Pecci, Guillermo Vilas (twice), and Manolo Orantes. None of them were serious rivals, which Lendl might have become had Borg not quit.
Borg's most overpowering performance was in 1978, when he won every set and lost just 32 games in the entire tournament. The best Rafa has done so far in this department was in 2008, when he also denied his opponents even one set and lost just 41 games. There's a general impression that Borg ripped through his competition at the French like nobody has before or since, but that isn't really true. Nadal is right up there, just behind if not dead even, when it comes to outright domination.
It was easy to think we'd never see the likes of Bjorn Borg again after he retired, and we learned a lesson. But we've seen lightning strike twice now, and whether it can hit a third time is something you all will have to decide for yourselves.
Watching Rafa Nadal churn his way through the claycourt season over the past few weeks, it seems nothing much has changed since his French Open triumph a year ago despite a lengthy injury layoff.
Scenes from Down Under
Check out the best images from the 2013 Australian Open.
The best of Wimbledon
The best images from the Grand Slam tournament at the All-England Club.
French Open 2012: Top 10 Shots
June 10, 2012: John McEnroe, Ted Robinson, and Mary Carillo look back at the Top Ten best moments from the 2012 French Open.