Yes, he learned, through the years, to beat the best on grass and hard courts, and yes, he overcame the debilitating knee problems that accompanied such wins.
Yes, he failed to win the French Open in 2009 for the first time since 2005—forced eventually to take time out to heal those knees—but he came back in 2010 stronger than ever to win not just the French title but the three preceding back-to-back clay Masters, and then both Wimbledon and the US Open.
By the start of 2011, he was 4,500 points clear of his rivals—a bigger margin even than Novak Djokovic managed during or since his record-breaking year. So while Nadal ‘only’ reached the finals of the first two Masters, Indian Wells and Miami, his losses in both to Djokovic on North American hard courts was not a cause for concern.
And sure enough, with springtime in the Mediterranean, order was restored, as everyone knew it would be. For ever since 2005, Nadal had skidded and skittered across Europe’s clay in near unbeaten fashion.
There had been that 2009 hiatus, caused by his painful knees, when he lost the titles in Madrid and Paris. He failed to win the Rome Masters in 2008—but promptly bounced onto the clay of the Hamburg Masters to take that title instead, avenging his loss to Roger Federer in 2007 in the process. But every other clay tournament he had played, beginning with Monte Carlo in 2005, he had won.
“Beginning with Monte Carlo…”, for that above all tournaments became Nadal’s own.
There, in 2005, the Spanish teenager faced world No3 and defending champion, Guillermo Coria, who had beaten the fresh-faced, 16-year-old Nadal on his way to the final in 2003.
But the 18-year-old Nadal was a different animal. He had already begun to assert his credentials with titles in Costa Do Sauipe and Acapulco and then, before his return to Europe’s clay, he took Roger Federer to five sets in the Miami final.
With his feet back on his favourite surface, Nadal rushed to a two sets lead over Coria, 6-3, 6-1. But when the Argentine won the third, 6-0, it looked as though the young pretender, with so many matches already played during the early spring, was growing weary.
He looked, though, very different from anyone else on the circuit—a breath of fresh air. And although Nike had yet to tailor his vest-and-pirate-pants look quite so cunningly, the raw material was there in spades: the glowering looks, the unshaven jaw, the straggling, drenched locks and the biggest left arm in tennis.
There and then, in fact, was probably the moment when the world’s love affair with the teenage bundle of muscle and passion began.
Nadal dug deep to find the essentials that still underpin his game today: a massive lassoed forehand, a swinging serve wide to the ad court, an urgent defence of every point, a will to win unmatched by any competitor in the game.
Leading 6-5 in the fourth set, Nadal took on the “look” as he still does at similarly key moments. With Coria serving, Nadal hurtled to the net to pick up a drop volley at full stretch for two championship points, and then chased down another drop shot for an outright forehand winner. It was his first Masters title and the first of many clay-covered celebrations.
The Monte Carlo win launched Nadal into one of his most successful year in tennis. He remained unbeaten on clay for the remainder of the year, later adding Bastad and Stuttgart for a 49-1 clay record. He also won in Toronto, in Beijing and in Madrid (then an indoor hard court Masters), to earn a grand total of 11 titles.
He began 2005 at No50 in the world and by April was at No17. In July, he reached No2, where he stayed—his way blocked by Federer—until August 2008.
And since that day, no-one has beaten Nadal on Monte Carlo’s clay. Last year, as in every other year bar one, he went on to win in Barcelona and at Roland Garros—he has six titles from each—but between those last two came a departure from the usual script.
Djokovic, with the Australian Open and two North American Masters titles already to his name, intended to prove that he was not just the man to beat on hard courts.
When the Serb beat Nadal in the Madrid final, especially as the Spaniard had already beaten Federer in the relatively quick Madrid conditions, there were a few raised eyebrows. That surprise turned to something much closer to shock when, in the traditional clay environs of Rome, Djokovic scored an even more straightforward victory.
In Paris, the draw handed Djokovic to Federer, who obliged by beating the Serb in the semis only to succumb to Nadal, as so often before, in the Roland Garros final.
So Nadal ended the clay season as he had started it: at the top of the rankings. Nevertheless, the spell he had cast over the clay season for so many years had lost just a little of its lustre, and his place at the top of the rankings had been whittled back to a mere 45 points.
Sure enough, with another change of surface, Djokovic renewed his attack, beat Nadal at Wimbledon and began a reign at No1 that still continues. Indeed since those defeats in Madrid and Rome, Nadal has lost to Djokovic three more times, all in Grand Slam finals.
By the World Tour Finals, both were tired men, yet Nadal found some end-of-season fire, winning two impressive rubbers in the final of the Davis Cup—on, of course, the comfort of Spanish clay.
Now the clay beckons him once again, and surely into a more welcome embrace than ever before. Nadal came within touching distance of the Australian Open title, in a final that left both him and Djokovic in need of chairs for the trophy ceremony.
Nadal then took six weeks off for rest and recuperation and, on his return, lost to Federer at Indian Wells and, more concerning, was forced to withdraw from his scheduled semi-final in Miami with a recurrence of tendonitis in one knee.
He has assured his fans that all is now well but, as if to rub salt into his wound, Djokovic not only went on to defend his Miami title but, unlike last year, has added his name to the starting list for Monte Carlo. If it were not that the Serb lives in the Principality of Monaco, it might feel as though he was breaking into Nadal’s backyard.
For although when they last met at the stunning Monte Carlo Country Club in 2009, Nadal beat the Serb in the final, there is less certainty that he can do so against the 2012 version of Djokovic.
The Serb has made no secret of the fact that one of his main targets this season is to complete the back-to-back Grand Slam by winning his first French Open. A win in Monte Carlo would lay down a strong marker for just that, but it would also halt one of the Open era’s most impressive records and Nadal’s attempt at an eighth straight title in one tournament.
In danger, too, is Nadal’s bid to take a record seven titles at the French Open and, should he fail in his Paris defence, he may even find his No2 ranking in jeopardy.
Nadal’s only titles last year came in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Paris and, aside from the Davis Cup, he has not won a tournament since. So it is here and now, where the magic started there and then, that he will hope to claim back the clay as his own.
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news
BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly