June 21, 2024
Rafael Nadal

As the ‘King of Clay’ prepares to wave goodbye,Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented success in Paris stands as one of the greatest records in sports history

Few athletes receive the honour of having a statue built for them at the end of their careers. Even fewer see their achievements recognised while they are still playing. Yet at Roland Garros, a 10ft steel sculpture of Rafael Nadal has stood at its gates since 2021, the great Spaniard locked in a position of typical intensity as he launches himself into a ferocious forehand. Nadal’s statue stands alongside the “Four Musketeers” of French tennis, Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste, the men who, between them, swept Roland Garros between 1924 and 1932. As a result, the trophy awarded to the men’s singles champion at the French Open is called the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

It is the Spaniard, though, who will leave behind an even greater impact at Roland Garros, with Nadal lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires a record 14 times. Since first arriving in Paris, the kid from Mallorca in his baggy shorts and sleeveless tees, Nadal has obliterated records and dominated the French Open in a manner that has transcended the sport. The “King of Clay” won his first title as a 19-year-old in 2005 and won his 14th as a 36-year-old in 2022, a lifetime of triumph. In total, Nadal has played 115 matches at Roland Garros, winning 112 and losing just three. A win percentage of 97 per cent is the highest of any player at a grand slam, unmatched in tennis history.

As Nadal now returns to Roland Garros for what is expected to be the final time, his records may be unsurpassed in the rest of sport, too, There are contenders: at the Olympics, Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are the undisputed titans of sprinting and swimming respectively, and went unbeaten in their signature events at three consecutive Games. Simone Biles ruled the fiercely competitive world of gymnastics and is the most decorated athlete in the sport’s history, managing to also match style with longevity. Tiger Woods is the only player in the history of professional golf to win all four majors consecutively, in the “Tiger Slam” of 2000-2001. In Sunday red, Woods also possessed an indomitable aura.

In the brutal arena of combat sports, Floyd Mayweather and Khabib Nurmagomedov retired undefeated, seeing off all challengers. Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher have overseen periods of dominance in F1 and hold the record for the most world championships, with seven, though the inevitable Max Verstappen may challenge that. Surfing legend Kelly Slater is both the youngest and oldest person to have won the World Surf League, which he has done 11 time, while snooker’s Ronnie O’Sullivan holds the same distinction for the UK Championship and the Masters, as well as a record-equalling seven World Championships at the Crucible. But to rival Nadal’s sheer numbers at one event, you have to stretch the criteria of competition. There, in Coney Island, you may find Joey Chestnut, who has won the Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest in 15 of the past 16 years, guzzling a career-high 76 in 2021.

But, in all seriousness, perhaps the only true comparisons can be found in tennis in the Open era. Nadal’s relentless pursuit of the French Open, year after year, has similarities with Martina Navratilova’s success at Wimbledon, which she won nine times between 1978 and 1990, only losing four matches. Roger Federer’s eight Wimbledons, including five in a row from 2003 to 2007, and Novak Djokovic’s 10 Australian Opens, including a 33-match winning run from 2019 to 2024, stand as their own respective highs, though neither will surpass Nadal’s 14 in Paris. He is the King of Clay for a reason.

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