Emperor Rafa and the select few
An asteroid has been named after him. Shakira put him in her music video for being an extraordinary world champion as a teenager. Reportedly, he is 10% owner of football giant Real Madrid but modestly calls himself a simple football lover.
Well, modestly and simplicity are definitely his middle names. We are talking about extraordinary tennis champion, the one and only Rafa Nadal.
Rafa while recently winning his 11th Barcelona tournament, chalked up his 400th win on clay courts. He, however, is not the 1st to win 400 matches on play, with Guillermo Vilas (659), Manuel Orantes (502) and Thomas Muster (422) having won more matches on clay courts. Currently, Rafa has won 401 matches on clay and lost just 35.
However, Rafa’s win percentage on clay at 91.9% is the highest in history. The next best being Bjorn Borg who won 251 of his 292 matches on the surface for an 86% win record. Vilas, the player with maximum clay-court wins lost as many as 162 matches on it for a win percentage of 80.3%.
Rafa now has 54 titles on clay out of an overall 76 titles. He is the only player to win 50 plus clay court titles, with the next being Vilas with 49. Among Rafa’s greatest clay court achievements are winning 10 French Opens, 11 Monte Carlo Masters 1000’s and now 11 Barcelona Opens. As a teenager in 2005 he won 24 singles matches, breaking Andre Agassi’s record for maximum wins by a teenager. He won the French Open in his 1st attempt, to be only the 2nd person to do so after Mats Wilander. The next year, he was the 1st person to beat Federer in a Grand Slam final. He has won 81 matches in a row on clay courts.
Rafa is definitely not an “only clay court player”. It would be abysmally foolish to even think so. He has won 3 US Opens, 2 Wimbledons and 1 Australian Open. He has held simultaneous Grand Slams on clay, grass court and hard courts on two occasions. He has 8 Masters 1000 trophies on hard courts. Rafa’s overall court record is also amazing with 888 wins to 186 losses, which means a win of 82.7% which is equal to Borg who also has 82.7%. Rafa’s overall win percentage is better than Novak (82.4%) and even his great rival Federer (82.01%).
Similarly, on clay Rafa seems invincible. All similar adjectives like indomitable, invulnerable, unbeatable, unstoppable, unshakeable and unconquerable. A nonpareil performer, his supremacy is matchless. Rafa not only wins but punishes and pulverises his opponents into subjugation with brutally dominating display of stunning tennis.
Rafa, as mentioned before has just 35 losses on clay. Who are these select few have done the unthinkable? Let’s have a look at a few of them.
Heading the list is Novak, who has 7 wins over Rafa on clay. Therefore single-handedly figuring in 20% of all matches lost by Rafa on the surface. Overall, Novak and Rafa have met 50 times with Novak enjoying a 26-24 head to head advantage. On clay they have met 22 times with 15 wins for Rafa, including 6 of their 7 French Open encounters. Novak has also won 2 times at Monte Carlo, 3 times at Rome and once at Madrid. Certainly, he is Rafa’s greatest clay-court opponent.
Interestingly, the only other player who has a positive head-to-head against Rafa is Nikolay Davydenko, who has won all his 6 matches against Rafa on hard court, and does not have a single win on clay against him. Rafa has 4 wins on clay against him and overall has a 5-6 record against the Ukrainian.
Federer and Rafa have played 38 matches with the Spaniard winning 23 and Federer just 15. But if one looks at their clay court rivalry, it is even more embarrassingly one sided with Rafa winning 13 out of 15 matches.
Federer himself accepts that multiple crushing clay court losses earlier in his career had a lasting effect on how their rivalry turned out. He goes on to say that possibly his 2008 Wimbledon loss to Rafa was due to being crushed 6-1, 6-3 6-0 by Rafa at the French Open, his 1st Bagel since 1999. Of Federer’s 2 clay court wins, one at 2007 Hamburg Masters is pertinent as it snapped Rafa’s 81 match winning streak on clay. Rafa’s other loss was at the 2009 Madrid Open final. Rafa has won all their matches at French Open, and Federer has lost as many as 4 finals to Rafa here. Due credit to Federer of course for seizing the only option he had of winning French Open in 2009 when Rafa was surprisingly out early.
Robin’s name is on the list as he is the 1st of only 2 players to defeat Rafa at the French Open, with Novak being the 2nd. Robin shocked Rafa in the 4th round of the 2009 French Open when Rafa developed an injury and went on to reach the final, where he lost to Federer. In 2010, he defeated Federer in the Quarters and went on to reach the finals where he lost to Rafa. Possibly, he could have provided some kind of competition to Rafa but he quit the game prematurely at 26 due to mononucleosis. In fact, Robin Soderling was the only player who could ever make Rafa lose his cool on court. One incident stands out when Robin went out of the court and started imitating Rafa’s adjusting his shorts while Rafa was about to serve. There were also rumours about Soderling’s drug abuse which was never proved.
Surprisingly, Murray has 2 wins over Rafa at the Masters 1000 tournaments. These were at Madrid Masters in 2016 and 2015. Overall, these 2 great champions have met each other 24 times, with Rafa winning 17 of them. Interestingly, they have met thrice on grass – at Wimbledon all three times and Rafa has won all three of the match-ups.
Gaudio is the only player to have a positive head to head record over Rafa on clay. Overall, they have 3 wins each but Gaudio’s 3 wins were on clay while Rafa won 2 on clay and 1 on grass. Gaudio won their 1st 3 matches and Rafa their next 3. His greatest achievement was winning French Open in 2004. Gaudio is also the only player to have bagelled Rafa on clay in a 0-6, 6-0, 6-1 win at Buenos Aires. Rafa subsequently bagelled him once more at Monte Carlo.
Fognini’s name figures in this select list for a specific reason. He is the only player apart from Djokovic who has more than one wins over Rafa on clay in one season. Overall they have met 13 times with Rafa winning 10 of the matches. However, the 3rd loss which will hurt Rafa a lot will be the 2015 US Open which Rafa lost after winning the 1st two sets. In fact, Gaudio, Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Thiem and Fognini are the only 6 players who have more than one win over Rafa on clay.
Other players who have had a solitary win versus the Emperor are Stan Wawrinka, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer, Nicholas Alemagro and Pablo Cuevas. To showcase Rafa’s supremacy, I would like to specifically mention David Ferrer, who in 19 matches with Rafa won just once while the overall has a 6-24 record versus the Emperor.
Considering the above, the Emperor looks a firm favorite for lifting his 11th French open and his overall 17th Grand Slam title. Rafa is currently the World Number 1 and he has said that more important than Number 1 is being end of the year Number 1. Well, with his current form and fitness if he wins Madrid, Roma and French Open, all on his favorite surface, he straightaway remains Number 1 till the US Open which is a strong possibility. Thereafter, considering his prowess on other courts, end of the year Number 1 looks a real possibility as well.
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