Spanish tennis superstar Rafa Nadal’s recent victory at the French open was his 14th at Roland Garros and 22nd Grand Slam victory, taking him – at 36 year old – two ahead of his “Big Three” arch-rivals: Swiss, Roger Federer, and Serb, Novak Djokovic. It is incredible to think how many more majors he might have won if Nadal had not been forced to miss 11 Grand Slams through injury. The 40-year old Federer, recovering from a knee injury, is unlikely to win any more majors. Only the 35-year old Djokovic could yet surpass Nadal’s record. Rafa’s achievements also include: winning all four Grand Slams at least twice; 4 U.S. Open titles; 2 Wimbledon, and 2 Australian titles. He won Olympic gold medals in singles and doubles, and has also lifted five Davis cups with Spain.
The boy from Mallorca
Rafael Nadal Parera grew up in a five-story building on the Spanish island of Mallorca, with his businessman father Sebastián, homemaker mother Ana María, and younger sister, María Isabel. His footballer uncle, Migual Ángel, played for Mallorca, Barcelona, and the Spanish national team, granting young Rafa access to his Brazilian Barcelona idol, Ronaldo. Another uncle, Toni, a tennis coach, recognised his nephew’s natural tennis talent at the age of 4. Four years later, the precocious Rafa won a regional under-12 championship. The natural right-hander was converted into a left-handed tennis player by his uncle.
By 12, Rafa had won Spanish and European tennis championships, though he never gave up his passion for football, often watching his beloved Real Madrid, including during the recent Champions League final victory against Liverpool in Paris. He travelled to Johannesburg in 2010 to see the Spanish football team lift the World Cup. Nadal turned professional at 15 in 2001, helping Spain defeat the U.S. at the Davis cup three years later.
An explosive decade (2005-2014)
It was in 2005 that Rafa – as a raw 19-year old – exploded onto the global tennis stratosphere by winning the French Open, rising to world no.3. Wearing his trademark bandana, he resembled more an Aztec warrior than a Spanish conquistador. The hallmark of Nadal’s game has been that of a master matador with the ferociousness of a prowling tiger and a never-say-die attitude. He unleashes killer forehand groundstrokes with heavy backspin, and a sledgehammer double-handed backhand. With quick footwork, uncanny anticipation, and using devastating speed to cover the court, he is a supreme problem-solver, and one of the game’s greatest returners of serve. He is consistently magnanimous in victory, and gracious in defeat.
At 24, Nadal became the youngest winner of the career Grand Slam of all four titles. After winning two more French Open titles, Nadal met Federer at Wimbledon in 2008, having lost to him in the final the year before. In one of the greatest matches in tennis history, Rafa vanquished his great rival in a gripping five-set match that lasted nearly five hours. He finally became world no.1 following this victory. A year later, Nadal won his first Australian Open. In 2010, he won his second Wimbledon crown and his first U.S. Open, confirming he was more than a clay court specialist. By 2012, he had broken legendary Swede, Björn Borg’s record of six Roland Garros titles. An eighth French Open title and second U.S. crown were achieved a year later.
Overcoming trials and tribulations (2015-2022)
Perhaps more than any tennis superstar, Nadal has had to suffer through multiple injuries that have often kept him side-lined for months. He has always responded with stoic self-belief and an indomitable spirit. Sounding almost religious in promoting suffering before Salvation, Rafa noted: “I learned during my career to enjoy suffering.” The Spaniard described his credo, deeply inculcated from childhood by Uncle Toni: “Endure, put up with whatever comes your way, learn to overcome weakness and pain, push yourself to breaking point but never cave in.” His incredible resilience is evident in the fact that he has always come back stronger, and found a way to keep winning.
Nadal’s all-action swashbuckling style inevitably resulted in many injuries. He was incapacitated for much of 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2018, 2021, and 2022. The injuries have involved damaged ribs, back, wrist, appendix, hip, knee, and abdomen. He recently had to take painkillers to numb his left foot before matches at the French Open. Diagnosed with the degenerative Müller-Weiss syndrome, which has afflicted him since he was 17, he has just undergone ablation surgery inserting a needle into his nerves.
It, however, remains unclear whether this can be a long-term solution. Rafa failed to win a Grand Slam in 2015 and 2016. Only in 2017 did he again triumph at Roland Garros, adding the US Open crown three months later. He would triumph in Paris again in 2019, 2020, and 2022, and his Australian victory in 2022 was unexpected, as he had missed most of 2021 through injury.
Many have prematurely written Nadal’s sporting obituary, and time and again he has proved that these rumours were greatly exaggerated. Even in the late autumn of his career, Rafa has kept improving: developing a stronger serve; strengthening his serve-and-volley game; giving up on lost causes rather than chasing down every ball; and improving his drop shots.
A legacy of greatness
Nadal’s legacy will undoubtedly be defined by his titanic rivalry with Federer and Djokovic, each of whom he has met in nine Grand Slam finals. The “Big Three” have played 61 out of 74 (82%) majors since 2003, underlining their dominance of a glorious generation. Despite much hype about Federer having no weaknesses, Nadal was clearly his nemesis, dominating him in many of their matches, and ending up with a 24-16 head-to-head in victories, including 10-4 in Grand Slams. Nadal was the only player to have beaten Federer on clay, grass, and hardcourts at majors. His ruthless 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 demolition of the Swiss maestro at the 2008 French Open final nearly reduced Federer to tears. The crude stereotypes contrasting Federer’s balletic poetry to Nadal’s brute force have often been contradicted by the Spaniard’s sublime artistry and the Swiss’s aggressive slugging.
If Nadal was Federer’s nemesis, Djokovic has clearly been Nadal’s, with a 30-29 win record over the Spaniard, though Nadal leads 11-7 at Grand Slams. The Serb uniquely defeated the Spaniard seven consecutive times between 2014 and 2017, achieving a straight sets- obliteration at the 2019 Australian Open final during which Nadal won just eight games. Rafa gained his revenge in the following year’s French Open at which Djokovic was wiped off the court in three sets, winning just seven games. In the 2022 French Open quarter-final, both played exquisite tennis. Djokovic described Rafa’s intimidatory intensity before matches, noting: “It creates the challenge in your mind that I’m going in with a gladiator…a mental giant and also a physical giant.”
Having won more Grand Slams than any other player, while winning at least one major for 15 years including 112 victories and only 3 defeats at the French Open; and having the highest career match-winning ratio at 83%, the increasingly brooding Nadal’s legacy as the greatest player in tennis history seems assured.
Professor Adebajo is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa.