Rafael Nadal’s dominance on clay courts is to be expected. When he enters Roland Garros, his path to the title is Jordanesque, Gretzky-like, Ruthian, or whichever GOAT athletes of the last century come to mind.
Seventeen years have passed since Nadal won his first Grand Slam at Roland Garros as a teenager. The “king of clay’s” once-flowing hair may be thinning, but the French Open crown is still present. Nadal strolled through No. 8 seed Casper Ruud for his 14th win in a French Open Final on Sunday morning. His victory was never in doubt during his 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 stomping of Ruud. It was merely a routine written into the script. The 36-year-old Spaniard has won every French Open Final he’s ever played in four sets or fewer and has won 112 of 115 matches at Roland Garros. He now has eight more French Open titles than Björn Borg, whose six French slams were the previous red clay standard prior to Nadal surpassing him in 2012.
However, Nadal’s clay dominance goes further than Borg could have ever imagined and is also beginning to extend to the hard courts. Novak Djokovic’s stubborn vaccine resistance and Federer’s senescence have conspired to give Nadal a monopoly over Grand Slams. In terms of dominance, Djokovic at the Australian and Federer at Wimbledon are the closest equivalents to Nadal’s reign at the French Open. Djokovic’s nine titles are the second-most titles won at a single Grand Slam by a single player in the Open Era, and Federer’s eight Wimbledon’s are third-most.
Djokovic’s absence left an opening for Nadal to win his second Australian Open. Winning the Australian and French Open in the first half of 2022 has created a considerable distance between himself, Djokovic, and Federer in the men’s Grand Slam title arms race. Nadal’s 22nd Grand Slam gives him two more than his contemporary rivals as the most prolific men’s slam champions in the Open Era.
Nadal’s most formidable competition was expected to be reigning champion Novak Djokovic, but Nadal wiped the floor with him in the quarterfinals. Alexander Zverev tore the ligaments in his ankle during a semifinal match against Nadal and had to withdraw. The 25-year-old German trailed one set after a 7-6 (10/8), 6-6 start against Nadal at the time of his ankle injury.
Nadal’s nearly 20-year battle with Müller-Weiss disease has caused chronic left foot pain, which has seemingly worsened in the last year. He withdrew from the 2021 U.S. Open to rehab and the foot continuously bothered him throughout the French Open. During his French tune-up, Nadal himself was limping through an early round defeat at the Italian Open a month ago. Nadal hinted at retirement before the French Open due to the pain caused by his foot and prior to the Final, Nadal told the media that he’d “prefer to lose Sunday’s final” in exchange for a new foot.
Following the French Open final, Nadal told Eurosport that he played the match with “no feeling in” his left foot due to an injection into the nerve.
Despite his weakened condition, Nadal sounded confident about competing at Wimbledon. Nadal remains the only male player to win three consecutive Grand Slams in a calendar year. He’ll get to do so in a field that banned Russian and Belorussian competitions such as world No. 2 Danii Medvedev and Audrey Rublev.
A potential 23rd Grand Slam would put him on equal footing as Serena Williams. Nadal will be the apparent favorite if he returns for a 15th promenade through the French Open field. He would also become the second-oldest male Grand Slam Champion in history.
Nadal is the most unique star in the ATP Tour’s history. His career earnings of $500 million are only half of Roger Federer’s because clay courts are considered the secondary surface on the ATP Tour. Nadal is a superstar on hard courts, but he’s a supernova on clay. The French Open is Nadal’s kingdom and it doesn’t appear like he’ll be ousted from that throne anytime soon.
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