Rafael Nadal: The man who taught us how to love clay

Spain's Rafael Nadal takes part in a practice session ahead of The French Open tennis tournament on Court Philippe-Chatrier at The Roland Garros Complex in Paris on May 21, 2024. (AFP)
Spain's Rafael Nadal takes part in a practice session ahead of The French Open tennis tournament on Court Philippe-Chatrier at The Roland Garros Complex in Paris on May 21, 2024. (AFP)


Rafael Nadal every year is another model. He looks like he’s chasing a ball, but really he’s hunting improvement

My teacher passed away the other day, the one I loved the most, who walked me patiently through W.H. Auden and into foreign worlds of verse. To love something is often to first wander through it with a guide. Someone to help you appreciate sculpture, or the nuances of a rock face, or journey deeper into a style of music. Something you never really fully grasped till you were properly introduced to it and then seized by it.

Maybe Hari Prasad Chaurasia led you into Hindustani classical music and Michael Jordan into the thin air of wonder. Maybe David Attenborough took you gently through nature and Carl Sagan set you off on your first voyages into space.

And maybe Rafael Nadal taught you how to love clay.

Maybe, of course, you knew this surface before, an affection built by Chris Evert’s knife-throwing accuracy and the warm grin of Gustavo Kuerten. Maybe you were hypnotised by that low-pulse Viking called Bjorn Borg or tickled by the two-handed teenage intimidation of Monica Seles. Or just grinned at watching old serve-and-volleyers stumble as if trapped in quicksand.

Maybe you were suspicious. Maybe you thought Paris tedious, an over-long conversation on a laundry-challenging surface, leaving mud-caked players looking as the writer Michael Mewshaw perfectly put it: “Batter-fried". But then this no-sleeved deity of the dirt, sweat raining, forehand swirling, feet sliding, changed it all.

Slowly, across 20 years, vocabularies altered. People started talking funny. Stuff about point construction, topspin RPM (revolutions per minute), coal residue in the surface, the heaviness when it rained and, yes, that two-point programme. As in you win the point against Nadal in the 13th shot, and then discover, well, f*** this, it’s not over, because he, this dusty samurai, has got it back, again, and now you have to restart, and really what’s the bloody point of it all.

Pause. A story. It’s 2014 and Robby Ginepri—who tells this tale at his press conference—is practising with some pals and the draw is out and this conversation occurs.

“Do you want to know who you play?" they ask.

Ginepri said sure.


Said Ginepri: “I don’t think I made another ball the rest of that practice."

He loses 6-0, 6-3, 6-0 in the first round which is a perfectly acceptable score. Nadal’s given 6-0 sets to Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. In finals.

The first transcript I find of a Nadal interview on clay is from 15 April 2003 in Monte Carlo. He’s 16 and he’s asked about school—“When I go back to classes, I’m a bit lost, but I’m still trying"—and no one knows the professor he’ll turn into. We will one day stop looking at draws in Paris, it seems irrelevant, for when he plays, we understand we’re attending not a contest but a concert. Soloist with accompanist. Recital in precise bloody-mindedness.

Also read: Abhinav Bindra: A champion looks back at who he was

He’s so unique that he defeats even television. The degree of difficulty of his spin—its bounce, its kick, its force—doesn’t translate on screen. Only at the court, from side on, you can see he’s the tennis equivalent of something Tysonian. “It’s very, very difficult to play against him because balls are coming very high," says Nikoloz Basilashvili in 2017. He drowns 6-0, 6-1, 6-0.

Nadal every year is another model. A study in evolving engineering. A backhand slice is added, a serve is enhanced, a volley is polished so fine that Mark Woodforde applauds it. He looks like he’s chasing a ball, but really he’s hunting improvement. In his mind, he’s never good enough.

It’s this investment of his entire self into every shot which destroys rivals. How do you play the patron saint of suffering? In his 2011 book titled RAFA: My Story, coach “Uncle Toni" tells co-author John Carlin about what he says to his nephew on days when his body won’t stop hurting. “I say to him, ‘Look, you’ve got two roads to choose from: tell yourself you’ve had enough and we leave, or be prepared to suffer and keep going’."

Nadal leaves nothing except other men in ruins.

And even those up there in tennis’ rarefied air, who know pain, who’ve endured themselves, who live this ascetic life, they can’t fully comprehend it. “He doesn’t go away one point," says Ginepri in 2014. Three years later in Paris, Roberto Bautista Agut, a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 victim, says, “He yields nothing". It’s unclear if they’re telling us or asking themselves how this can be.

Nadal made grinding gratifying, he made clay joyous as he slithered around his backhand with a street dancer’s fast feet and attacked with a forehand which uncoiled like an irritated snake. Huhhh, he went. Jesus, we said. He played Federer and Djokovic 14 times in Paris and lost twice. He played 98 matches across his 14 winning years and lost only 23 sets. Through four separate campaigns—2008, 2010, 2017, 2020—he didn’t give up a single set. Once, in 2008, he won nine 6-1 sets and three 6-0.

Who owned an arena like this? Who on a particular piece of athletic ground was so impossible to budge? He went so far that you needed to hurdle sports and cross continents to find a comparison. In 1994, in 27 seconds, involving nine pairs of hands, the French scored a winning rugby union try against the All Blacks with four minutes remaining at Eden Park in Auckland. No one has ever beaten the All Blacks at The Fortress ever since.

But that’s a team with a revolving door of players on home ground, this is one man against the tide of generations in a foreign land. Horatius, that Roman from legend who defended a bridge, might have liked Nadal’s steadfastness. Anyway now here we are, almost in Paris again, unready for his goodbye? No, actually, we’re ready. Enough he’s run for us. Enough, like with my teacher, he’s given us. He won’t win, we know, but maybe something will be lost in all of us.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold. He posts @rohitdbrijnath.

Also read: Tennis: A fitting end to Rafael Nadal’s French Open fairy tale?

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