It has been three years since Rafael Nadal hoisted the winning trophy on the clay courts of Roland Garros, but the 2017 version of the King of Clay is out to snap that streak and reclaim his throne.
The nine-time French Open champion has shown positive signs in the early months of the year, which included a magical run to the Australian Open finals, and there is no one more excited for the tennis season to switch to the clay courts than Nadal.
“Since the beginning of the year, everything has gone better than expected,” Nadal said. “I am very happy about the first part of the season on hard courts before the clay arrives. I won a lot of matches. I have a lot of points. I am still defending a lot of points on clay the next four tournaments, especially the first three events, but I won a lot of points during the first part of the season, so that helps.”
Last year, Nadal captured titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and reached the semifinals and quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome, respectively, and the Mallorca, Spain native will once again be using those big tournaments to get himself ready for Paris.
It has been a trying couple of years for Nadal, as injuries have slowed him down and prevented him from returning to the form that made him an all-time great. He began 2016 by playing six tournaments in the first three months and was successful in the early clay-court season, but a wrist injury prohibited him from participating in the 2016 French Open.
He would play in just a handful of tournaments the rest of the year, which included a Bronze Medal at the Olympics in Rio, but mixed results in ATP tournaments.
That followed an up and down 2015 campaign that saw his ranking drop to as low as 10th in the world, his lowest mark since 2005. It included a disappointing defeat in the third round of the U.S. Open, where he blew a two-sets-to-love lead on Italy’s Fabio Fognini, snapping a streak of 151 straight wins at Grand Slams when holding a two-set lead.
“What I am doing worse is playing worse than what I used to do the last couple of years,” Nadal said with some semblance of self-doubt after that defeat to Fognini in Flushing Meadows. “That’s it. It’s easy to understand, easy to explain, difficult to change. But I’m going to do it.”
Even at the peak of his career, many tennis people believed that his playing style would not be kind to him in the long run; that he would not be able to sustain that type of physical tennis late into his career. And it seemed that those people were correct as the Spaniard struggled through 2015 and 2016.
But Nadal has returned with a vengeance so far in 2017. Even playing in tough weather conditions and on hard-courts, Nadal hasn’t displayed any signs of the injuries and wear-and-tear that has previously halted him.
He reached the quarterfinals in Brisbane before making his run to the finals in Melbourne. He was a finalist in Acapulco and fell to Federer in the Round of 16 in Indian Wells, before once again losing to Federer in the Miami Open final.
Nadal’s first title of 2017 came on the familiar Monte Carlo clay courts for the 10th time and there is no debate that he is a different player than the one we have seen in the last couple of years, which only bodes well for his run on clay.
No man has dominated a tournament quite like Nadal has the French Open. He won the championship there every year from 2005-2008, and again from 2010-2014. It all began when he was just a teenager 12 years ago when he entered the tournament as the favorite. That pressure didn’t faze him one bit as he dropped just two sets throughout his whole run. One of those set defeats came in the finals, but Nadal still captured his maiden Grand Slam title in 2005 with a 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 win over Argentina’s Mariano Puerta in Roland Garros.
From then onward, the Nadal Era was born in Roland Garros.
His 2005 run began a streak of 31 consecutive wins on the French clay, spanning a run of four titles, as the dominant lefty established himself as the greatest clay court player ever. His first loss would come to Sweden’s Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the 2009 edition of the tournament, an upset that is still hard to believe even eight years later.
“I was not calm enough to face the important points, so I had to fight. But sometimes fighting is not enough. You have to play a good level of tennis,” Nadal said after falling to Soderling. “People think I win because I’m physically fit, but, no. When I win, it’s because I play well, and that wasn’t the case today.”
The defeat came just a month after Nadal had trounced Soderling 6-0, 6-1 in Rome, making it even more shocking. Soderling would go on to reach the finals, but fell to Federer in the title match.
But that loss would prove to be an aberration for Nadal, as he rattled off 36 more wins in a row, winning five more titles, until that streak was snapped by then world number one Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Just like Soderling, Djokovic would reach the finals, but come up short against a Swiss, as he fell to Stan Wawrinka.
As we approach this year’s installment of Roland Garros, all signs point to Rafael Nadal reintroducing himself to the tennis world as the King of Clay. He is back up to number five in the ATP Men’s Singles Rankings, and if not for Federer, would be playing the best tennis of anyone in the world so far this year.
With the world’s top two players, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, both having absentee years thus far as each deals with injuries and mental fatigue, the door is open for Nadal to once again display his brilliance on clay. Whereas many players find clay difficult to play on, Rafa embraces it and his physical style of play is perfectly suited for the sliding surface.
With injuries no longer a lingering problem, Nadal is no doubt one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to capture the Roland Garros trophy for a remarkable 10th time. He has come a long way over the last couple of years to return to the level of play that made him a dominant force in tennis for years.
And he cannot wait to get back onto those clay courts.
“I am at a very high level of tennis right now, and I believe I am ready to win titles,” Nadal said. “I’m playing well enough to fight for everything. When I am playing this well, it always helps a little bit for me on clay. I am very excited about playing on clay again.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com