When a weary David Ferrer managed to win just five games in his French Open semi-final loss to Rafael Nadal in 2012, he was in no doubt over the enormity of the challenge. “Winning a match against Rafa at Roland Garros is almost impossible,” admitted a bamboozled Ferrer as he trudged off Court Philippe Chatrier. It would have been no consolation to the gritty Ferrer that at least he won one more game than Roger Federer managed in the 2008 final in Paris.
On the crushed red brick of Roland Garros, hardly anyone laid a glove on Nadal who on Thursday said he would miss this year’s tournament through injury.
Since his swashbuckling title-winning debut in the French capital in 2005, he racked up 14 titles, winning 112 matches and losing just three.
Two of those came against Novak Djokovic — in the last-eight in 2015 and semi-finals in 2021.
Sweden’s Robin Soderling had been the first to pierce the Nadal armour in 2009. Nadal avenged that last-16 loss 12 months later in the final.
The only other time Nadal was thwarted in Paris was 2016 when a wrist injury forced a withdrawal after the second round.
His combined successes at Roland Garros swelled his bank balance by more than $26 million.
In 2005, when he won the French Open at his first attempt, he was just two days past his 19th birthday.
When he captured his record-extending 14th in 2022, he was the championship’s oldest champion at 36.
Nadal made his Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon as a raw 17-year-old in 2003, but it was his maiden appearance in Paris that had fans drooling.
His 6-7 (6/8), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 win in the final against unheralded Mariano Puerta of Argentina made him the first man since Mats Wilander 23 years earlier to triumph at the first attempt.
‘Like a war’
Nadal won 11 titles in 2005, eight of them on clay including the prestigious Masters in Monte Carlo and Rome.
Entering Paris, he was on a 17-match win streak and in the French capital he was drawn to face Germany’s Lars Burgsmuller in the first round.
“I remember that I was a little sad about the draw,” Burgsmuller, ranked 96 at the time, told USA Today in 2015.
“Everyone was talking about him. Everyone knew that he would be very, very good.”
Nadal would go on to claim the French Open title in each of the next three years, defeating Federer in the final on all three occasions.
In the 2008 championship match, he allowed his great Swiss rival just four games.
That year, he didn’t drop a set. Compatriots Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro, both top 25 players, were allowed just three games apiece in their last 16 and quarter-final eviscerations.
In 2017 and 2020, Nadal again swept to the title without dropping a set.
Incredibly, in his 115 matches at Roland Garros, Nadal was pushed to five sets on only three occasions.
He won all three.
“With Rafa on clay in best of five, it’s like a war,” said Carlos Moya, who was Nadal’s coach in recent years.
John McEnroe, who fought legendary battles with Bjorn Borg, was able to compare eras.
“I know when Borg played in my day he was like the human backboard,” said McEnroe.
“He was faster than everyone, fitter than everyone, and you couldn’t get a ball by the guy.
“I saw guys get exhausted in the first set, like the best clay court players in the world. It’s like the same thing when you play Nadal. This guy, he comes to play every match. This is a guy that just doesn’t give it away.”
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