Millennium Man Rafael Nadal marks 1,000 match-wins – but that is just the tip of the iceberg
Nadal notches win No1001 to reach Rolex Paris Masters quarter-final
It is probably fair to say that the Rolex Paris Masters has not been the happiest hunting ground for world No2 Rafael Nadal. It is, after all, one of just two Masters tournaments that the Spanish super-star has yet to win.
That may all change this week, as the top seed targets a Paris double after winning a record-making 13th Roland Garros title in his last tournament less than a month ago.
But already, he has ticked off the latest in a catalogue of big milestones in Paris’s indoor showpiece: his 1,000th match-win. And it was done in typically intense, resilient style against a familiar opponent, his compatriot Feliciano Lopez.
They had not played for more than five years, and back then, the veteran Lopez scored two straight wins in hard-court Masters. This time, it looked as though Lopez would upset Nadal again when he took the opening set, 6-4. He resisted five break points to reach a tie-break in the second set, too, but Nadal’s serving—perhaps the biggest improvement in his game since the two men last crossed rackets—took worked the only mini-break to win the set, 7-6(5). Against one of the biggest servers in the sport, Nadal had scored more aces—nine—and dropped fewer points on serve—just four in 34—than Lopez.
Sure enough, after more than two and a half hours, Nadal finally got No1,000, 6-4.
So many of the great Spaniard’s qualities were on show in that single opening match: Sweat-drenching physical effort; speed and anticipation; unparalleled focus; and a package of tennis skills and tactics that continues to grow even at the age of 34.
More of his qualities were encapsulated in the words that greeted this significant milestone:
“[That] means that I am old. That means that I played well for such a very long time, because to achieve that number is because I have been playing well for a lot of years and [that] is something that makes me feel happy.
“I just can say thank you very much to all the people that helped me and all the people that in any moment of my life helped me to be where I am.”
Modest, respectful, self-deprecating, yet still with a work ethic that has stayed as strong as when the 15-year-old Nadal won his first ATP match in 2002. One has only to watch his warm-ups and practice sessions at any tournament to appreciate the jaw-dropping intensity of this perfectionist—that is, if there is room to get anywhere near the court through crowds and crowds of fans.
Yet here too is a man who has won the coveted ATP Award for Sportsmanship, as voted by his fellow players, and the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award.
But his words in Paris also pointed to the other side of the Nadal coin—not the bristling, hyper-active, super-focused athlete but the off-duty, everyday man who is at his happiest with friends and family in his beloved home of Mallorca.
His uncle Toni Nadal was his primary coach from the year he soared to his first big titles in 2005. And one cannot underestimate the influence of that uncle and his parents as he piled up 11 titles that season, among them four Masters and the French Open, while still a teenager. Such success so quickly, and the publicity and fandom that came with it, might have turned the head of a less well-grounded young man. However Nadal’s foundations have always been rock-solid.
The home-loving picture was completed late last October when he married his girlfriend of 15 years, fellow Mallorcan Mery Perello. And when his uncle was ready to retire from coaching, none other than Carlos Moya, a former French Open champion from the same Mediterranean island, took over—a marriage made in heaven, even though the precocious Nadal had beaten Moya six times before the older man retired.
And another key coaching presence throughout has been former player Francisco Roig, who summed up the qualities that underpin their long-standing relationship in a recent ATP interview.
“The thing I’ve valued most about Rafa is his humility, the ability to keep listening and keep improving. Or being able to win points with few weapons because he’s not playing his best tennis. And then… when he finds his game, it’s rare that he loses it. And the consistency of so many years without leaving the top 10. Even the year when he was struggling, when he found it mentally difficult to compete, he was the only one who didn’t drop out of the top 10.”
For that 1,000 stat is not the only measure of Nadal’s longevity this week. He overtook the Jimmy Connors record for consecutive weeks ranked in the top 10. That run began for Nadal in the glorious summer of 2005, when he went unbeaten in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Roland Garros to reach No3.
And of course, for most of the intervening years since, he has been ranked much higher than No10. He has spent 209 weeks at No1, and were it not for the glass ceiling created by his old rival, Roger Federer, who topped the ranks unbroken from 2004 until Nadal displaced him in 2008, the Spaniard would most likely have accumulated many more.
For he, like fellow greats Federer and Novak Djokovic, have had to share the ranking and titles spoils with each other for most of their careers. And that makes the individual accomplishments of each all the more impressive.
Nadal is one of only four men to reach four figures in match-wins, but he also tops a slew of other records, some of them quite breath-taking in their scale.
He has the most clay titles in the Open era, 60, and all-time records at Roland Garros, 13, Monte-Carlo, 11, and Barcelona, 11. And those 13 French Open titles put him way ahead of all rivals for titles at any one Major.
And lest anyone suggest he is a one-trick pony, he has won five Majors on hard courts, and has notched up more hard-court match-wins than on clay, 482 to 445.
He this year equalled Federer’s record 20 Major titles, and is one short of Djokovic in Masters records. However victory in Paris this week would draw him level on 36, and in any case, he has already won more Masters matches than anyone else, 387.
Unlike his two greatest rivals, too, he has an Olympic singles gold medal—and another in doubles. And while both Federer and Djokovic have been stalwarts of their national Davis Cup squads, and enjoyed one victory, Nadal has five times been a member of Spain’s winning team.
There is one notable hole in Nadal’s resume, the ATP Finals—though he is level with Federer on five year-end No1s, and just one shy of Federer’s record number of years qualifying for the tennis finals—16 times this year.
But maybe this year it will be different, for the same reason he could finally capture the Paris Masters. For Nadal has invariably come into the closing indoor stages of the season either injured or fatigued. For example, in the last three years, his Paris intentions have ended either in withdrawal or retirement, and in five of the previous seven years, he did not even enter the draw.
But in this shortened and distorted pandemic season, 37 tournaments have been cancelled. Meanwhile, the decision that players keep their ranking points until next season allowed Nadal to pull out of the US Open while keeping his title points. He has therefore played only two tournaments since February, a guarantee that the Spaniard has been able to preserve energy and fitness into the closing stages of 2020.
First things first, of course. Nadal played unseeded Jordan Thompson in pursuit of win number 1001, and cruised through the first set, 6-1. He saved set point at 5-6 in the second set with line-painting strikes, and come the tie-break, Nadal punished the Thompson legs with a 33-stroke rally, and went into hyper-aggressive mode to kill a smash, 5-2. A final forced error from the Australian and Nadal progressed to the quarter-finals.
He next plays No9 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, who is one of the last men in the running for the ATP Finals, but needs to win the Paris title to reach London. Nadal has beaten him in all six previous matches, losing just one set: Win No1002 should be just round the corner.