Spanish tennis superstar Rafael Nadal’s victory at the French Open was his 14th at Roland Garros and 22nd Grand Slam victory. This takes him – at 36 year old – two ahead of 40-year-old Swiss Roger Federer and 35-year-old Serb Novak Djokovic. It is incredible to think how many more Majors he might have won had Nadal not been forced to miss 11 Grand Slams through injury.
It was in 2005 that the 19-year-old Nadal exploded onto the global tennis scene by winning the French Open, and rising to world No 3. The hallmark of his game has been that of a master matador with the ferociousness of a prowling tiger and a never-say-die attitude. He unleashes killer forehand groundstrokes with heavy backspin, and a sledgehammer double-handed backhand.
With quick footwork, uncanny anticipation and using devastating speed to cover the court, Nadal is one of the game’s greatest returners of serve. At 24 he became the youngest winner of the career Grand Slam of all four titles (French, US, Australian and Wimbledon).
Perhaps more than any tennis superstar Nadal has had to suffer through multiple injuries that have often kept him sidelined for months. He has always responded with stoic self-belief and an indomitable spirit. The injuries have involved damaged ribs, back, wrist, appendicitis, hip, knee, and abdomen. He recently had to take painkillers to numb his left foot before matches at the French Open.
Diagnosed with the degenerative Mueller-Weiss syndrome, which has afflicted him since he was 17, Nadal has just undergone ablation surgery inserting a needle into his nerves. However, it remains unclear whether this can be a long-term solution. Yet many have prematurely written Nadal’s sporting obituary and time and again he has proved that these rumours were greatly exaggerated. Nadal has kept improving: developing a stronger serve, strengthening his serve-and-volley game and improving his drop shots.
The Spaniard’s legacy will undoubtedly be defined by his titanic rivalry with Federer and Djokovic, both of whom he has met in nine Grand Slam finals. The “Big Three” have played 61 out of 74 (83%) Majors since 2003, underlining their dominance of a glorious generation. Despite much hype about Federer having no weaknesses, Nadal was clearly his nemesis, dominating him in many of their matches and ending up with a 24-16 head to head in victories, including 10-4 in Grand Slams.
Nadal is the only player to have beaten Federer on clay, grass, and hard courts at Majors. His ruthless 6-1 6-3 6-0 demolition of the Swiss maestro at the 2008 French Open final nearly reduced Federer to tears. The crude stereotypes contrasting Federer’s balletic poetry to Nadal’s brute force have often been contradicted by the Spaniard’s sublime artistry and the Swiss’s aggressive slugging.
If Nadal was Federer’s nemesis, Djokovic has clearly been Nadal’s, with a 30-29 win record over the Spaniard though Nadal leads 11-7 in Grand Slams. The Serb defeated the Spaniard seven consecutive times between 2014 and 2017, achieving a straight sets obliteration at the 2019 Australian Open final during which Nadal won just eight games.
Nadal gained his revenge in the following year’s French Open at which Djokovic was wiped off the court in three sets, winning just seven games. In the 2022 French Open quarterfinal both played exquisite tennis. Djokovic described Nadal’s intimidatory intensity before matches, noting: “It creates the challenge in your mind that I’m going in with a gladiator ... a mental giant and also a physical giant.”
Having won more Grand Slams than any other player, while winning at least one Major a year for 15 years, including 112 victories and only three defeats at the French Open; and having the highest career match-winning ratio at 83%, the increasingly brooding Nadal’s legacy as the greatest player in tennis history seems assured.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.
This article first appeared in Business Day on 12 June 2022.