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French Open: Can anyone better Rafa Nadal’s awesome feat of clay?

Kolkata: There are certain benchmarks in sport to underline the domination of an exceptional sportsperson or team - be it the USA national basketball team, FC Barcelona at their prime, Roger Federer on grass or the Australian cricket team, which won three ICC World Cups on the trot between 1999 and 2007.

And then of course, you have got Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros. It’s time for another edition of French Open to start on Sunday - in just over seven months from the last one in October where the man from Mallorca made shortwork of the challenge of Novak Djokovic, taming the world No.1 in straight sets to win his 13th grand slam on clay.

The history of tennis has seen some of the biggest champions putting their signature on particular slams of their choice - like Pete Sampras winning seven Wimbledon titles in eight years, Federer taking an enormous liking for the surface or Ivan Lendl making US Open finals for eight years on the trot.

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But what do you make of Nadal’s nine French Open titles in 10 years at one go, with the first one beginning as a 19-year-old in 2006 ? It was eventually left to Stan Wawrinka to break the sequence in 2014 with a big upset while Djokovic won the next one in 2016. The last four years, a 30-plus Nadal showed that notwithstanding the pounding his knees and the body have taken, he is the man to beat on the most demanding of surfaces.

Granted the draw this year is somewhat sticky as it lumps the ‘Big Three’ of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer together in one half - Nadal being only third seed below Daniil Medvedev who - believe it or not - has never won a match on the Parisian clay.

Nadal turns 35 next week but once the claycourt swing comes up during this time of the year, he manages to recharge his batteries to defy age and unless there is a sudden niggle or an exceptional bad day, it’s difficult to see him not be the last man standing. The run-up to 2021 season had been no different as his commanding win over Djokovic in the Rome final earlier this month sent out a powerful statement.

Nadal's extraordinary fitness levels and retrieval capacity on the slow Parisian clay surface had been the key factors behind his success rate there. Image Credit: AFP

If the affable champion needs any extra motivation, he knows that lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires once again will see him move ahead of Roger Federer at the top of the all-time list of men’s Grand Slam champions, with 21.

“Rome was crucial to him,” two-time French Open runner-up Alex Corretja told media in the build-up. “It was a reminder that he is the best on clay ever and the fact that he beat Novak in the final is something that gives him so much confidence.”

Djokovic, whose hope of winning a second French title were destroyed by a ruthless Nadal in last year’s final, could lock horns with his claycourt nemesis in the semi-final this time.

The Serb could also face 39-year-old Federer in the quarter-finals, although with the Swiss having lost his only match on clay this year, his expectations are perhaps as low as they have ever been ahead of a Grand Slam.

“I think for Roger to reach the quarter-finals would be an unbelievable result,” Corretja said. “It’s Roger, so you can never count him out, but I think if he reaches the second week it would be an amazing result.

Can there be a twist in the tale? We will know in the coming two weeks.