Rafa's clay résumé simply ridiculous
Still only 24 -- he hits the quarter-century mark on the day of the semifinals -- Rafael Nadal seeks his sixth French Open title in seven years.
If he wins, will he supplant Bjorn Borg, the legendary Swede who won six in a span of eight years, as the greatest clay-court player ever?
Mats Wilander, whose three Roland Garros crowns place him in that very brief conversation, says no.
"If he wins?" Wilander said recently from his home in Sun Valley, Idaho. "I don't think so. He's already the best ever on clay. Even the great Bjorn Borg would say Rafa is way better than he was.
"He doesn't only win the French but everything else, too."
Rafa passed Borg with his 31st title on clay when he won for the sixth time at Barcelona. This, after tying him with a record seventh straight Monte Carlo victory. Even with Novak Djokovic playing ethereal tennis on every surface, it seems only a matter of time (based on his average of five titles a year, say, 2014) before the forceful Spaniard will pass all-time No. 2 Thomas Muster (40 titles) and No. 1 Guillermo Vilas (45).
For the record, please note that those two great champions won a single French Open title apiece in a collective 32 tries.
Even with two wins over Nadal in eight days -- he spanked him in straight sets in the Madrid and Rome finals -- Djokovic is not an automatic choice to win at Roland Garros.
"Oh, yeah," said NBC and Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo. "I still think he's the prohibitive favorite. Rafa certainly knows how to win the French, but … no one's playing like Djokovic. His backhand blew me away this past weekend, how aggressive he was.
"He seems to have solved Nadal's spin and goes after it earlier. He's fit enough and confident enough to take it early with his backhand. It's sort of incredible -- the level of problem-solving he's managed to accomplish."
Nadal's numbers, taken as a whole, are still ridiculous.
• He has fashioned a record of 194-8 on clay, going back to 2005. For those of you scoring at home, that's an average of about one loss per season and a winning percentage of 96.
• Nadal not only holds the record for the longest clay-court winning streak (81) but is the only player in the Open era to win at least 30 consecutive matches three times.
• He went a perfect 67-for-67 in April on clay, winning 12 titles in the process, going back to a 2005 loss to Igor Andreev in the quarterfinals at Valencia.
"Those numbers are sick," said Brad Gilbert, an ESPN analyst who once coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray. "Winning 96 percent of your matches; it's outrageous. The best free throw shooter in the history of the NBA never did that.
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"And you know what? He's getting better. Because everybody else is, too, he's upping his game."
This turns out to be a consensus opinion.
Jose Higueras, one of the leading minds in clay-court tennis, has coached Jim Courier, Roger Federer, Carlos Moya and Sergi Bruguera. Today, he is the USTA's director of coaching for elite player development.
"Whoever said that it's tougher to stay on top than to get there was a pretty smart guy," Higueras said from his home in Palm Spring, Calif. "Rafa understands this perfectly. He's become more offensive all around. Before, on clay, he'd beat you because he wouldn't miss any balls. He'd kind of wear you down.
"Now, he will take a step forward or two. Instead of being content to hit four of five more balls, he'll take his chances. He has more confidence to hit winners. This is something he's acquired on hard courts. So this development on other surfaces has actually helped his clay game -- which is scary."
Nick Bollettieri, another legendary coach, agrees.
"Rafa always used to hit that heavy spin, but players got on to it," Bollettieri said from his tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla. "His game changed when he flattened out the forehand, especially on short balls. He's serving out wide to the ad box, which is what McEnroe, another lefty, learned to do. After a match the other day, Rafa had a great remark. He said 'I learned a little something. I never stop learning.'
"That's the sign of a person that will keep on achieving."
ESPN's Darren Cahill, who coached Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, sees a back-to-the-future aspect of Nadal's evolution.
"A couple of years ago, when he was No. 2 in the world, Rafa was pressing more to the net, putting more on his serve -- looking to be more offensive than he needed to be," Cahill said. "Now, he's running again, working extremely hard early in matches, not over-hitting anymore.
"He's not littering up the stat sheet with lots of winners; he's letting opponents implode. You can't play tennis when your serve and forehand breaks down. Now, he's playing those shots with confidence, and he looks like a more complete player."
The question, as always with Rafa, is how his body holds up to the pounding his schedule -- and his ability to reach the finals -- demands. After playing 12 matches in three weeks on U.S. hard courts, Nadal took a single week off, then launched into the clay season. He won all 10 of his matches in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, took another week off, then played all the way to the finals at Madrid and Rome. If he reaches the final at Roland Garros, that would be 32 matches in 11 weeks -- a lot of wear and tear.
"I don't know if his body will get any better," said Pam Shriver, winner of 22 Grand Slam doubles titles. "At 25, he's physically even older."
Said Higueras, "Obviously, he's an unbelievable competitor, one of the most determined players I've ever seen. Together, with Borg, playing every point the same no matter what the score is. Their game is the same."
Borg's six titles came from 1974 to 1981; he lost in the quarterfinals to Adriano Panatta in 1976 and did not play the event a year later because he was under contract to the WTT. Borg's career mark at Roland Garros is a heady 49-2, with both losses coming to the Italian, Panatta.
Nadal, who lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009, is an unimpeachable 38-1.
"Bjorn Borg was always the freshest player when he played on clay," said Wilander, who was a sporty 47-9 at Roland Garros. "Rafa is not the freshest player when he gets on clay because he plays so many tournaments. You have to say that Borg was more dominant than Rafa -- when he played --- but he didn't do it day out and day in.
"Coming in, Rafa's playing four events -- that's maybe 20 matches -- before he gets to Paris. It's kind of ridiculous when you think about it."
And so, the two-week buildup to the final tennis fans are aching for begins. If Nadal and Djokovic get there, it could approach epic. Djokovic would have won all 43 of his matches in 2011. Nadal, with an eye to history, would be trying to break that streak.
"He is the king of clay," Djokovic said after beating Nadal on Sunday. "He is the best player ever to play on this surface. He has given me a lot of confidence for the French Open."
Said Nadal, "I am disappointed about my match, [but] I am not sad tonight. We will try next time."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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