Why Rafael Nadal Will Win the French Open (In Case It Wasn’t Otherwise Obvious)

The king of clay returns to Roland Garros to defend his French Open title. Spoiler alert: You've already seen this ending seven times before

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Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

Get ready to see this for an eighth time on June 9.

I spent parts of two summers working at the French Open during the height of Rafael Nadal’s first Roland Garros reign in 2007 and 2008. Both years, before even the first match was played, anyone who’d been at the previous French Open knew who was going to walk away with the men’s title. The running joke was how long it would take for people to start talking themselves into Roger Federer as a potential threat to Nadal’s crown. At the time, Federer was the best tennis player in the world and at the peak of his run to set a new all-time record for Grand Slam titles. But for anyone who watched the two play their early-round matches on Paris‘ fabled red clay, the discussion was a nonstarter. Rafa beat Roger in four sets in the 2007 final and dominated him at the same stage in straight sets the following year (they also contested the 2006 final, which Nadal took in four). Nadal was the king of clay, the Rajah of Roland Garros. Those monikers still remain appropriate today.

Simply put, there is no justifiable reason for anyone to pick a men’s tennis player other than the 26-year-old Nadal (he’ll turn 27 during the Grand Slam) to win the 2013 French Open, which begins this Sunday in Paris. Any alternative narrative evaporated when Nadal dispatched longtime foe Federer 6-1, 6-3 in a tidy 69 minutes to win the Rome Masters 1000 title last Sunday. It’s possible that Rafa has slipped to the backs of sports fans’ minds since he hasn’t participated in — let alone won — a Grand Slam event since falling in the second round at Wimbledon a year ago, but there’s little question that he’ll once again be the primary concern of every player on tour come Sunday.

(MOREThe Return of Rafa: What Nadal’s Recovery Means for Men’s Tennis)

Since returning from injury in February, Nadal holds the best record in men’s tennis at an imposing 36-2. One of those losses came in the finals of his first tournament in nearly six months and the other came last month in the Monte Carlo finals against Novak Djokovic, who has the second-best year-to-date record at 28-4. Nadal has won six tournaments in 2013, Djokovic has won three. No one else on tour has won more than two.

Nadal is right where he normally is at this time of year. He’s arguably the greatest clay court player in tennis history and that’s the surface that dominates the spring schedule (though Rafa has also won his lone hard court event of 2013). Whatever whispers were spoken about his health following the missing of some Grand Slam tournaments have been drowned out by his dominant play over the last three-and-a-half months.

Then there’s his history at Roland Garros. Nadal has won seven of the last eight French Open championships (including the last three), his streak interrupted only by a fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling in 2009 while battling knee ailments. That means the Spaniard is 52-1 lifetime at Roland Garros. For comparison’s sake, Federer and Pete Sampras — both of whom hold seven Wimbledon titles — each lost seven times at the All-England Club. No one in the history of men’s tennis has been as dominant at any single venue — let alone a Grand Slam event — as Nadal has been at Roland Garros.

(MORE: In Tennis, Are Injury Timeouts Just Cheating?)

But if we’re going to insist upon entertaining the idea that Nadal could be toppled, let’s take a look at the main contenders (and it should be pointed out that two potential foes, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro, have both pulled out). Even in his advancing age of 31, Federer is still one of the game’s best players. He surprised many by winning Wimbledon for a seventh time last year, but has scaled back his schedule this season and only played in six tournaments. Federer’s lone finals appearance came last weekend when he fell to Nadal in two sets. If he wasn’t able to beat Rafa at Roland Garros in 2006 or 2007, when he won the other three Grand Slams of the season, it’s unlikely he’ll pull it off this year.

The only other player on tour to win 30 matches this season is Nadal’s countryman David Ferrer, whom Rafa just passed in the rankings. Though Ferrer has won a pair of tournaments this season, Nadal didn’t enter either one and is 19-4 lifetime against Ferrer, including 3-0 this year.

(MORE: Say Hello to Sloane Stephens, The U.S. Teen Who Beat Serena Williams)

That leaves Djokovic, who defeated Nadal in their lone meeting this season. Nadal is 19-15 lifetime against the world No. 1 and won all three of their clay court matches in 2012 after Djokovic had defeated him seven consecutive times between March 2011 and January 2012. Djokovic has never been particularly successful at Roland Garros. It’s the only Grand Slam he’s never won and he’s only made the finals there once (last year, when Nadal dispatched him in four sets). Still, the 26-year-old Serb is the only opponent who’s been able to dominate Rafa for an extended period of time and has momentum from his January win at the Australian Open. If anyone has a chance of toppling Nadal, it’s the Serbian Sensation.

But the odds of Djokovic pulling off the upset — and don’t be fooled by the fact that Novak is No. 1 and Rafa No. 4 in the world tennis rankings — are slim. Nadal is incredible on clay and otherworldly at Roland Garros. He’s also relatively fresh after his six-month layoff. The new Nadal is the old, indefatigable Nadal once again. There may come a time when his reign draws to a close, but the king of clay doesn’t seem poised to relinquish his crown anytime soon.

16 comments
GraceSette
GraceSette

rafa continues to be the dominant force in tennis. I sincerely hope he wins. he is a terrific young man who is very family oriented, certainly not like novak who has torn his shirt off when he won. whats up with that???????

8katydon23
8katydon23

Why does TIME ( in the most racist fashion imaginable) concentrate on Nadal's tennis success while ignoring Serena's and instead TRYING to goad stupid Sloane into making more negative comments about Serena.  Nearly EVERY player  "fist-pumps"  and many of them also shout "Come on," to pump themselves up!  Sloane needs to shut her trap or look like Uncle Ruckus -- trying to find "fault" with a person of color (like HER!) for merely doing what everyone else does. Serena danced with Azarenka and the mascot at the Federer/Gillette tourney.  She teamed with her friend, Roger Federer, in a mixed doubles match vs Nadal and Kim Clijsters for charity in the "Hit for Haiti" tournament.  And Serena and other ladies on tour got cornrows together.  Sloane can pretend all she wants.  Serena has to get to KNOW people before being friends with them.  How could Serena be "besties" with someone she barely knows?

8katydon23
8katydon23

Sure hope Serena Williams wins on the ladies side.

James900
James900

The Roland Garros seedings are annoying this year....Djokovic and Nadal are are in the same half of the draw and so could meet in QF instead...The winner of that match will win the tournament as Federer does not pose a threat to either at the moment..His backhand is breaking down again recently.

sammyyyy425
sammyyyy425

amareshtnr::: one problem roger has not lost the last 8 years or so in a grand slam to a qualifier! or a really low seed but ur hero rafa nadal has lost to guess who? ROSOL ROSOL ROSOL and then silently went into a 7 month depression! cause as u know he didnt have any surgery some tennis experts even doubt that he was ever hurt since one cannot tell if he was hurt after the way he played the whole clay court season....remember all those wins this year is useless if he does not win the french...but he can win it as long as he does not have to play novak!

amareshtnr
amareshtnr

@ Sammyyy425

I can understand ur frustrations on poor performance of ur Fedex this year. Also pls note this fact as well.. You can guarantee Rafa nadal to be in Finals or at Semis. But the sad part is that you cannot guarantee Novak or Fedex to be in semis rather in Finals. Cos we have seen them losing to underranked players often this year. Likes of berdych, Tommy haas, Dimitrov, Delpo and Fed is in the poor form of his life so he can lose even to a wildcard. So pls come out of that dream world that these two reaching semis at RG. If that happens, you can see rafa nadal lifting the trophy in elite style.. So pls wait and c.. Let Novak and Roger try reaching semis.. Don worry rafa always waits til end of RG

MecRemy
MecRemy

what do you guys think about ferrer knocking nadal out? he's te 2nd best player in the world on clay.


cee
cee

@MecRemy Ferrer hasn't beat Rafa in 8+ years on clay.  He was 2 pts from the match a couple of weeks ago and failed to close the deal.  I think it's highly unlikely.  And I don't agree that he's the 2nd best player in the world on clay, either. 

sammyyyy425
sammyyyy425

you my friend are a rafa nadal fan....and thats totally alriht. You write stuff about roger federer and make him look inferior to rafa and that is your choice. but you should go to rafa nadal page for that! since you are talking thrash about roger, as a roger fan i have a few facts that u need to know!

first off, rafa is plaing his absolute best, and absoutely no excuses will be accepted after he loses the french, and lose he will the french. 

Here are the main reasons why rafa has won most of the times at the french, first off roger always had to play novak and novak always had to play roger in the semifinals, atleast 90 out of 100 times in all the slams the organizers put novak and fed on the same side so they have to beat up on each other and rafa gets a free pass! to t he finals!rafa has never earned the french open, but the tables have turned, the organizers were going to screw both novak and fed by having them play in the semi, and that simply wont happen as fed will be ranked 2nd and your hero will be ranked 3rd.

Now your hero is screwed as he has to play fed in the semi and he will probably beat fed in the semi, but the finals novak will eat him alive! you know and rafa and his other fans know that if rafa plays novak in the semi or the finals that match would be over before it ever starts! cause novak is in rafas head! and novak will take rafa out not just at the french but also at wimbeldon and the us open! we have already seen that...and after rafa loses i expect that you ERIC DOODS come back here and compliment novak and then fed at wimbeldon for winning them. rafa will again go into a depression after wimbeldon, and then u can wait till next year and again talk thrash next year! 

RossRobbins
RossRobbins

@sammyyyy425 LULZ, you were so, so wrong. Shame you won't see this, but man were you ever wrong. 

RahulSharma
RahulSharma

@sammyyyy425 toaly stupid assumpions about fed loss to rafa in FO what happen to fed when he was beaten by a 19 year old in 2005 at FO in semis even a prime fed was not able to beat a teenager so stop making excuses about his losses to rafa at FO i can agree that novak is in rafa's head same is with fed or even worse because rafa has thrased him on every surface and fed haven't beaten rafa in GS since 2007 and novak was in rafa's head even last year everyone knows what happend in that final i know as a fed fan u hate rafa because of rafa's win over fed so stop saying stupid things or stupid assumptions u r embrassing yourself.....

sammyyyy425
sammyyyy425

@RahulSharma @sammyyyy425  wrong fed has been waiting for rafa many times in the slams just last year fed was there waiting for rafa at wimbeldon only to find out rafa got destroyed by rosol, again this year even at age 32 fed will be waiting for the in peak playing his best tennis rafa at the us open and watch the coward rafa ur hero losing before meeting roger...cause he wants to keep his record intact...and roger has a winning head to head against novak so there it is...novak will destory rafa on every surface every time they play...and dont u ever forget tennis is not about head to head but its about the grand slams....and fed would have won so many slams before he retires that ur coward hero rafa nadal wont even dare coming close to winning that many..and i do guarantee that much!

redvalalex
redvalalex like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@sammyyyy425 you my friend are one of those fedfanatics who would rather see rafa die before winning another championship. you are a disgusting, bitter, frustrated human being.

SatishIyer
SatishIyer

Nadal didn't miss WImbledon 2012.. He was knocked out by Rosol in 2nd Round... He missed only US open '12 and AO'13


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