STARNBERG, May 14, 2021 (by Nikki Adams)
The clay court season is in full swing, barrelling at pace towards its pièce de resistance: Roland Garros. The Grand Slam tournament (also known as the French Open) that typically sees the undisputed King of Clay Rafael Nadal crowned as its champion.
Ever since the Spanish star burst onto the scene in 2005, winning his first-ever Roland Garros title as a teenager, he’s exacted a complete and utter domination over the event like no other player ever has in the history of the sport. Bjorn Borg, in another era, had set the standard as the most winningest player at Roland Garros. The legendary Swede and clay-court guru of his generation had won six titles (between 1974 and 1981) to become the first player to win six French Open singles titles. But Nadal blew him out of the water in spectacular fashion to establish himself as the bona fide clay court King in the Open Era.
So ruthless and exacting his supremacy over the Parisienne major, Nadal has clinched 13 of the 16 titles since 2005. That’s an unprecedented achievement at any single event, putting him in a league of his own in the history books of tennis. A fact that is further underpinned by his triumphs at clay court events over his career: Nadal is the most successful player in history on clay courts with a 61–8 record in clay court tournament finals.
What makes Nadal exceptional is the fact that its literally unfathomable that his record at Roland Garros will be surpassed any time soon. Moreover, with another Roland Garros looming on the horizon at the end of this month (the 2021 French Open is set to run from May 30 to June 13), he’s primed to extend his title haul to 14.
During the pandemic-ravaged 2020 season which upended the ATP Tour and turned the tennis calendar on its head, Nadal nevertheless was true to form as he went on to win his 13th Roland Garros title. The event had been rescheduled from May to late September but neither the change in date nor the cooler fall conditions in Paris couldn’t prevent Nadal from claiming his beloved title. He beat a highly-fancied Novak Djokovic in straight sets 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.
Separately, in ascending the throne for the thirteenth time in Paris, Nadal tied Roger Federer on 20 Grand Slam titles – the most major titles by any ATP player in the history of the sport. The next best is Novak Djokovic on 18 titles, a tally the Serbian starlet augmented by winning the 2021 Australian Open.
As a testimonial to Nadal’s clay-court prowess and unparalleled success at the French Open, sportsbooks across the board are cornering the event in his camp. As per sportsbook Intertops (check an Intertops review here) and assessment of the event, Nadal is indeed tipped as the player to beat right now with the world No.1 Novak Djokovic tipped as a close second best bet.
Of course, the betting outlook in of itself is no guarantee of anything. Nadal is no spring chicken. He’s set to celebrate his 35th birthday on June 3rd, right smack in the midst of the tournament this year. His detractors are going to argue that the probability of winning 14th French Open title is in fact lower than the odds would suggest for that very reason. If only because a slew of young, up-and-coming players on the ATP Tour, as well as genuine major threats such as Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, amongst several others, might fancy their chances at the French Open this year. And against Nadal. more so than ever before when he was in his prime, should it come down to it.
The fact that Nadal is in a position to separate himself from Roger Federer in the history books by winning a 21st Grand Slam title only adds to the pressure of the occasion. The record Nadal has set at the French Open, on his beloved Court Philippe Chatrier, is without a doubt one of the most impressive feats in the game, but to establish himself as the most winningest player at the Grand Slam level is another matter entirely.
Nadal’s game has shown some vulnerability of late that takes the shine off of his odds according to some tennis insiders. Boris Becker recently commented on it, citing Nadal’s exit from the Australian Open quarterfinals after fritting away a two-set led to Stefanos Tsitsipas as cause for concern. Suggesting that players can smell that vulnerability.
More recently, Nadal’s loss to Andrey Rublev at the Monte Carlo Masters quarterfinals was held as an additional sign that the Spaniard might not be so infallible on his beloved clay as he was in his heyday. That said Nadal did finally crack the win column at the Barcelona Open last month, winning his first title of the 2021 ATP season at the expense of Stefanos Tsitsipas in three sets 6-4, 6-7, 7-5. It wasn’t his best performance, but sometimes winning in the face of adversity, when struggling to find form and things aren’t going your way is the best kind of confidence boost.
Nadal’s former coach uncle Toni said it best when he commented on his nephew’s performance in Barcelona. “It was not a great game,” said uncle Toni. “I think neither of them played well, although it was very exciting. For Rafael, I think it was something important. That he is able to beat the 5 in the world, and win without playing very well, with mistakes that he normally does not make, is something that can give him a lot of morale for the following tournaments.”
The 2021 French Open is back in its usual spot on the calendar, set to get underway at the end of the month of May. Just as spring gives way to summer’s heatwaves, creating the kind of scorching conditions that are most ideal for Nadal’s game. How Nadal performs in the lead up to the French Open will provide timely insight into his confidence and whether his form actually equates to the established betting markets.
Having said that the French Open presents a whole different competitive dynamic because it’s a best-of-five tournament. It’s one thing to get the measure of Nadal in a best-of-three-sets scenario but another to do so in a marathon best-of-five-sets scenario. Thus far, Nadal has been nigh unbeatable in such circumstances — losing only twice in his career at the French Open (100-2).
Thus, until proven otherwise, Nadal has earned the right to be considered as the player to beat in Paris. And that perception isn’t going to change until it does.