Honesty, integrity but most of all an unwavering desire to win: The story of how Rafael Nadal achieved tennis greatness

On Sunday Rafael Nadal claimed a record-extending 13th Roland Garros crown and record-equalling 20th grand slam title. But how exactly did he rise from the clay courts of his beloved Manacor to global superstardom? Alex Grant takes a look into the illustrious career of the King of Clay.

Nadal’s victory in Sunday’s French Open Final drew him level with Roger Federer in terms of grand slam titles – both men hold 20, the record in men’s tennis. (Photo Credit – Tennis Photo Network)

They have ruled tennis with an iron fist for the best part of two decades, becoming legends and household names that go far beyond just the sport they call home. Together, the names and the lives of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will be forever linked.

And on Sunday, those three, as they so often have been, were front and centre again. Djokovic and Nadal were preparing to do battle for the 56th time, both with their own pieces of history on the line. For Federer, his involvement was a watching brief from his home in Switzerland, as he recovers from knee surgery, no doubt having a keen eye on proceedings. As Sunday soon proved, from first point to the last, the final was all about the greatness of one man – Rafael Nadal.

Born in Manacor on June 3rd 1986, Nadal began his tennis journey aged just three pushed by his uncle, Toni Nadal. Young Rafael soon began making a name for himself, not just as a tennis player, but also as a keen footballer. At age 12, Nadal won the Spanish and European tennis titles for his age group and it was soon after this that he chose to stop playing football in order to focus fully on his fledgling tennis career. It became clear that Uncle Toni had unearthed a hidden gem in his nephew.

In 2001, prior to turning pro, Nadal defeated former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash in a clay court exhibition match, aged 14. Following his 15th birthday that June, the Spaniard turned professional and on April 29th 2002, whilst ranked 762nd in the world, he won his first professional match, becoming just the ninth man in the Open era to achieve this feat before the age of 16.

Challenger success followed and in 2003, he became the youngest man to reach the Wimbledon third round since Boris Becker in 1984, but it would be the following year that a 17-year-old Nadal really announced himself to the world. Then ranked 34th in the world, he faced off for the first of 40 meetings (thus far) against the then undisputed world number one, Roger Federer, at the Miami Masters, defeating the Swiss in straight sets.

More historic success followed, as Nadal, aged 18, became the youngest player to register a victory in Davis Cup singles, defeating world number two Andy Roddick and helping Spain to Davis Cup glory. This was the first of many successes in an excellent national career which has spawned five Davis Cups, one Olympic singles gold medal and one Olympic doubles gold medal.

It was to be in 2005, however, that Nadal really began to build his legend. Winning 24 consecutive matches, breaking Andre Agassi’s open era record of straight wins for a teenager, he entered the French Open for the first time, having missed out due to injury in previous years as a firm favourite.

On his 19th birthday, the Spaniard defeated Federer in the semi-finals before two days later beating the controversial Mariano Puerta in the final, becoming only the second man after Mats Wilander to win at Roland Garros on his debut and the first teenager to win a slam since Pete Sampras in 1990.

More French Open titles followed in 2006 and 2007 but despite reaching the Wimbledon final both years and perhaps due in part to a record-breaking 81 match win streak on the red dirt, Nadal had earned a reputation as being ‘only a threat on clay’.

This was to all change in 2008, however, as after claiming a fourth straight Roland Garros crown, obliterating Roger Federer in the final 6-1 6-3 6-0, he reached a third straight Wimbledon final against the same opponent and history was made.

In a match widely regarded as the greatest of all time, Nadal raced into a two set lead before being pegged back to two sets all, with the Spaniard seeing a championship point come and go in the fourth set tiebreak. After the match was interrupted by two separate 90-minute rain delays, the fifth set just completed the drama. With the score tied at seven games all and light fading fast, word came across that only two more games would be played before the match would be halted for a third time, to be restarted on the Monday. Nadal, as he so often has, picked his moment and didn’t let go, breaking Federer’s serve before serving the set out and as Nadal fell to the grass with his arms outstretched, the darkened centre court was lit up by a barrage of camera flashes.

The epic clash between Federer (left) and Nadal (right) is widely regarded as one of, if not, the best tennis matches of all time. (Photo Credit – Professional Sport /AELTC)

The Spaniard soon climbed into the crowd, reminiscent of Pat Cash in 1987, going straight to hug his mum, dad and uncle. Wimbledon was won and a little over a month later, the Spaniard officially ended Federer’s four and a half year run atop the tennis rankings.

Gold medal glory was achieved later that summer in Beijing before a maiden Australian Open crown in January 2009, after outlasting Federer in yet another five set lung buster. Despite this early crowns, Nadal fans won’t remember this year fondly, as Nadal suffered his first defeat at Roland Garros to Robin Soderling, before being forced away from a defence of his Wimbledon crown due to injury – an injury that saw him miss the entire grass court season.

Injury was to strike again at the 2010 Australian Open, as his troublesome knees saw him limp out of a quarter-final match-up with Britain’s Andy Murray. Upon his return to the tour, however, the Spaniard dominated, regaining his French Open crown by beating his previous year’s vanquisher in Soderling, in a very one-sided final.

Nadal then backed this victory up by winning Wimbledon and the US Open back-to-back, becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win three majors on three different surfaces in the same season. His victory in New York also saw him complete the coveted career grand slam of winning every major at least once and at 24, he became the youngest in the Open era to achieve this feat.

More French Open success followed in 2011, but Nadal saw his Wimbledon and US Open crowns slip into the hands of Novak Djokovic, with the Serbian announcing himself on the scene by defeating Nadal in both finals, winning the final two slams and bulldozing his way to the top of the tennis rankings for the first time.

Djokovic provided yet another stumbling block in Nadal’s path, after the Serb came out victorious in an Australian Open final that ended just shy of six hours after it began – the longest grand slam final in history. The Spaniard finally broke his bad streak against his new rival later in 2012, after coming out victorious for a record-breaking seventh time in the French Open, moving clear of Bjorn Borg’s record haul of six titles.

An extended seven-month injury break from the tour due to his troublesome knees followed, forcing Nadal to miss the defence of his Olympic gold medal and denying him the chance to lead Spain out as his nation’s flag-bearer during the London games’ opening ceremony.

The Spaniard returned to action in time for the following clay court season, finishing as runner-up at the Monte Carlo Masters and ending his extraordinary eight-year title winning run at the event. He quickly bounced back, claiming victory at the Barcelona 500, followed by back-to-back successes at the Madrid and Rome Masters respectively. This meant Nadal entered Roland Garros in top form and once again, barring a minor scare in a truly epic five set semi-final victory over Djokovic, there was little standing between him and another Parisian victory.

Nadal would later defeat Djokovic again, this time to claim a second US Open crown, ending the season as year-end number one for the third time and even being voted as the Laureus Sporting Comeback of the Year recipient.

2014 saw injury troubles once again plague the Spaniard, as he suffered a back injury early on in the Australian Open final. The injury tragically dashed any hopes that Nadal had of being the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete the double career slam of winning every major title at least twice. Nadal recovered enough to claim yet another French Open title, pulling him second on the all time list of grand slam winners, level with former grand slam record holder Pete Sampras.

The repeated injury troubles soon began to take their toll, both physically and mentally, as 2015 saw a Nadal, clearly devoid of confidence, fail to win a grand slam in a calendar year for the first time since 2004, when he was 18. 

Unfortunately, the following season followed a very similar pattern, despite a momentary resurgence with victories at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona – his ninth title at both tournaments. An injury the Spaniard’s wrist forced a very emotional Nadal to retire from his beloved Roland Garros, prior to his third round match. Nadal did make enough of a recovery to finally lead Spain out as flag-bearer at the Rio Olympic Games and alongside partner Marc Lopez, Nadal managed to claim another gold medal for his country in the men’s doubles, but fell short of a medal in the singles’ tournament, finishing fourth. This was followed by another lengthy break from the tour, as the Spaniard looked to finally put his recent injury troubles behind him once and for all in 2017.

This was a decision which immediately paid off, as Nadal returned to a grand slam final for the first time in almost three years at the first time of asking in Australia, although came up agonisingly short against Roger Federer. However, the return of the clay season was once again where a resurgent Nadal would blossom. He claimed his 10th title at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, claiming fifth in Madrid before ripping through the competition at Roland Garros – the Spaniard didn’t drop a single set on the way to a 10th French Open title. The Spaniard would later finish off a brilliant comeback year by claiming a third US Open crown and finished the season as world number one for the first time in four years.

After battling through each of his opponents effortlessly, Nadal closed out his 2017 French Open by claiming his 10th title in straight sets over Stan Wawrinka – the Spaniard didn’t drop a set throughout the entire tournament.

Sadly, 2018 started with an all too familiar tale for the Spaniard, as he was forced to retire from the Australian Open with an injury he sustained during his quarter-final win over Marin Cilic. The Spaniard once again, however, bounced back just in time for the clay season in April, once again cleaning up on the red dirt, winning in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome before claiming an 11th Roland Garros crown in Paris.

Nadal followed up on his excellent season on the clay with his best finish at Wimbledon since 2011, reaching the semi-finals before falling in defeat to old foe Novak Djokovic in a five-set clash that spanned the course of two days. The season sadly ended much the same way as it started, with Nadal being forced to retire injured during his US Open semi-final match with Juan Martin Del Potro, bringing a premature end to his title defence and with it, his season.

The extended off-season again seemed to serve the Spaniard well, as he raced through the field without dropping a set to reach yet another Australian Open final, only to fall via a rather lopsided score line to Novak Djokovic. Another brief injury lay off followed, this time impacting on the start of the clay season as, clearly short of sharpness, Nadal suffered three straight semi-final defeats in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid.

After improving his standard with each passing tournament, Nadal rebounded well at the Rome Masters, beating Djokovic in the final to win the event for a ninth time, before once again proving himself as the gold standard at Roland Garros, as he marched to a 12th title on the French Open clay. A Wimbledon semi-final appearance followed by a title-winning run at the US Open ensured the Spaniard ended the 2019 season as world number one for the fifth time.

Entering the 2020 season on 19 slams – one off the record – Nadal knew it could be a historic year but a quarter-final defeat to Dominic Thiem in Australia, followed by the suspension of tennis as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, seemed destined to delay his shot at history.

But the return of tennis and a rearranged Roland Garros inside a COVID-secure bubble presented another opportunity.

Desperate to grasp it with both hands, the Spaniard chose to skip his US Open title defence on the New York hard courts in favour of staying on his beloved clay to best prepare for the French Open and it was a decision that paid off massively. On Sunday afternoon, Nadal collapsed to his knees on the Philippe Chatrier court for the 13th time, improving to a barely believable 100-2 win/loss record at the historic clay court major and perhaps most crucially of all, levelling Roger Federer’s all time record grand slam haul of 20.

In a year of change, Nadal’s French Open victory offered at least some semblance of normal and despite all his barely believable success, Rafael Nadal’s desire to win remains undiluted and he very much remains the same young boy who once stood on his home town court with nothing more than a dream.

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