Consider for a moment the torment of the poor soul condemned to face Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in Paris. Not only is Nadal invincible there, but also, over five sets, forbiddingly exhausting. The opponent is certain he will hurt, for his body will be pushed to extremes it has never experienced before. The opponent is also just as certain he will lose: for, of the 60 matches Nadal has played at the French Open, he has won 59. For some time now, Nadal has been considered the greatest clay-court player ever, not least by Björn Borg, the previous recipient of the honour. Having become the first man to win the same Grand Slam event eight times, Nadal is without a rival to the claim of being the finest single-surface champion of all time. The title doesn’t limit him. He is, of course, one of only three men — Andre Agassi and Roger Federer the others — to win majors on clay, grass and hard courts; also one of only seven men to win all four Grand Slam crowns in a career. On the contrary, the title elevates him, for it highlights an unprecedented dominance.
Nadal’s match-play record on clay breaks down to 286 victories and 21 defeats, which is to say he wins an incredible 93 per cent of the time. The corresponding figures for Borg, the next best on clay, are 245-39 and 86 per cent. Federer holds the records for both grass (87 per cent) and hard courts (83 per cent). Even among the best on each surface, Nadal stands apart by some distance. Besides the staggering eight Roland Garros titles, he has won Monte Carlo eight of 10 times, Barcelona eight of nine times, and Rome seven of nine times. The reasons for Nadal’s mastery of clay are both straightforward and inaccessible. He says he relishes the physical suffering inevitable on clay. This acceptance of pain explains in part his successful return to the game in February after being sidelined by injury for seven months. Nadal also enjoys a significant athletic edge over everyone but Novak Djokovic, the only other man as capable of retrieving lost rallies. While injuries have cost him some of the scrambling dynamism of his younger days, his game has evolved along slightly more aggressive lines to compensate. Vitally, he has first-rate nerves — Djokovic, known for his mental strength, said after their epic semifinal that Nadal had been braver when it counted. The most striking aspect of Nadal’s historic eighth title is that at 27, he isn’t finished yet. When Pete Sampras and Roger Federer won their seventh Wimbledon championship in 2000 and 2012 respectively, the likelihood of their winning another was far from certain. On the other hand, Nadal, if anywhere near full health, will start next year’s French Open the firm favourite.