Age is on his side, the red-clay surface is his ‘forte’ and he is a master at playing in the ‘big events’, suggesting that, health and fitness permitting, Nadal remains firmly in the frame to win further Roland Garros titles.
As Sampras and Federer made the grass of Wimbledon their own, Roland Garros over the last decade became Rafa’s spiritual home so overwhelming was his dominance of the event. That sense of connection and identification with the event adds a further dimension that should further enhance his chances of securing titles in the future.
To start off, let’s look at his record at Roland Garros to date. In every year since 2005 (except one: 2009), he has been the victor in the Men’s Singles there. As a measure of Nadal’s achievement, his record of seven titles has only been equalled only once in the modern era, by Bjorn Borg in the 1970’s/80’s. In the history of the French Championships overall, it has been surpassed only once, by Frenchman, Max Decugis in the 1903-1914 period who won the event on 8 occasions. Nadal stands in elite company and will continue to be the player to beat at Roland Garros.
The record books also show that Spaniards have had a special affinity with Roland Garros. After the French themselves, the Spanish have won the most Men’s Singles titles over the event’s history – perhaps, an unsurprising statistic given the popularity of red clay in Spain and the long list of top Spanish talent over the years, Moya, Ferrero, Costa, Bruguera in recent times leading the Spanish charge. Nadal, therefore, comes from a along line of tradition on top of his own unique, explosive talent.
The comparison of the red clay of Roland Garros with grass is a telling one in terms of Nadal’s future prospects. If Nadal, for example, were to have the same dominance on grass as he does on clay, the relative lack of numbers on the current tour who can regularly compete as likely winners of Wimbledon would probably cement his dominance on that surface. On clay, however, there are a considerable number of (mainly European) players who are likely competitors to win at Roland Garros over the short to medium term: Djokovic, Murray, Tsonga, Ferrer, Del Potro, Nalbandian being amongst the most favoured. This clearly makes his task of reinforcing his Roland Garros dominance more challenging.
The pressures exerted on the human frame by clay far surpass those of grass (long rallies and the long term effects on muscles and joints of the harder surface), suggesting that a Nadal potentially plagued by recurring injury might find an event like Roland Garros challenging over the coming years. Nothing suggests Nadal’s motivation to win (one of his hallmark features) has been dimmed, but recurring injury has the capacity to sap the energy and spirit of even the most robust individuals. After his temporary, injury-induced dip in 2012, all Nadal fans will be heartened by his recent title win in Sao Paulo, interestingly his first title since Roland Garros 2012 . The boy is sending out a message (not just to Djokovic, Murray and Federer but to the tennis public as a whole) that he is back and with a vengeance and at the age of 27, still very much a major contender.
Paul McElhinney, February 2013