Rafael Nadal is recognised in 2021 as the undisputed king of clay court tennis. His domination of the French Open Grand Slam means he is always a favourite going into the tournament. The fact that he’s won the Slam a whopping 13 times also helps. It’s even more amazing when you realise that Nadal has been a fixture in the top of world tennis since the mid-2000s. Age and injuries have undoubtedly slowed him down. But even then, he continues to dominate on clay. There’s been no player like him, at least on clay – and there’s a chance his records remain unbroken for a long time.
With the 2021 edition of Roland Garros set to begin in four days, we take a look at when Nadal first announced himself as the king of clay.
Rafael Nadal was seen as an early favourite for the 2005 French Open. This is despite the fact that, up until that point, he had yet to win a Grand Slam.
Roger Federer was also in the hunt, but success in Paris had eluded him till that point. That he was coming off a semi-final loss in the Australian Open didn’t help.
Andy Roddick and Marat Safin were also in the mix, with them and the aforementioned Federer being seeded above Nadal.
Defending champion Gaston Glaudio was seeded five, with Andre Agassi at sixth. Interestingly, this would be the legendary American’s final Roland Garros appearance.
Both Nadal and Federer breezed through the opening rounds. En route to the quarters, Federer dropped no sets and Nadal just once – to Sebastian Grosjean in Round 4.
Federer beat Victor Hanescu to book his spot in the final four. Nadal did the same with a thrashing of compatriot David Ferrer, including a bagel in the third and final set of the match.
That the likes of Roddick, Safin, Glaudio and even Agassi were knocked out made both Federer and Nadal clear favourites.
However, the semi-final was won quite easily by Nadal. It did look like fans could expect a classic five-setter after Federer pulled back the second set despite dropping the first.
But Nadal held firm, winning the next two sets comfortably to book his spot in the final. His opponent? The unseeded Argentine Mariano Puerta.
Many expected the final to be a breeze for Nadal. However, Puerta had done well to make the final and shockingly took the first set 7-6 (8).
That seemingly awakened the beast in Nadal, who claimed the next three sets with minimal fuss. A new king was born – as well as the first major rival of Roger Federer.
That win would begin an unprecedented run of dominance in Paris for Nadal. Since then, he’s won the title 12 more times. His 13 title wins means he is head and shoulders ahead of anyone else in history.
The next highest number of title wins at Roland Garros belongs to France’s Max Decugis with 8, However, he won these titles in the amateur era. In the Open era, the man who comes second to Nadal is Bjorn Borg with six titles.
Given the form he’s shown on clay in 2021, it is hard to bet against Nadal making it title number 14.