As he gets up and running on the red dust, Rafael Nadal, who will be bidding for a tenth Roland-Garros title in six weeks' time, has the chance to further elevate his status in tennis history with more monumental exploits. We run through the landmarks in reach for the king of clay on his preferred surface.
Rafael Nadal chasing more clay milestones en route to Roland-Garros
The epic quest for a triple "Décima"
Winning the same tournament nine times is practically unprecedented in the ATP annals. Indeed, Rafael Nadal is the only man to have achieved the feat and he has done so in three different places: Roland-Garros, Monte-Carlo and Barcelona. In other words, the Spaniard boasts the record for the most titles at a single Grand Slam, Masters 1000 tournament and ATP 500 event thanks to his nine triumphs in Paris (between 2005 and 2014), Monaco (between 2005 and 2016) and Barcelona (also 2005-2016) respectively.
As he gets his clay season underway, having skipped the South American swing in February, the Majorcan is therefore pursuing a hat-trick of truly historic proportions: a tenth title at Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Roland-Garros. These perfect tens, a round number as symbolic as it is legendary, would bear the ultimate testament to the longevity of Nadal's reign on the most taxing surface in tennis.
Of the three, completing a much-vaunted Grand Slam "Décima" at Roland-Garros would obviously be the most momentous achievement. Nadal has not lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires – or any major trophy, for that matter – since 2014. Remarkably, this two-year drought is his longest since he made his debut at the Porte d'Auteuil. And if there is one title that he craves more than any other, it is another French Open. As his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, asserted, "He is ready to win Roland-Garros again, which is his main objective."
Surpassing Vilas to take sole possession of the clay-court titles record
Nadal's other big challenge this clay season is none other than to eclipse Guillermo Vilas's tally of 49 titles on the dirt. With his triumph in Barcelona last year, the Spaniard finally drew level with the Argentine – whose record appeared unassailable when he beat Henri Leconte in Kitzbühel in 1983 for what would turn out to be his last success on the surface – but he subsequently failed to break the tie in Madrid, Rome or Paris.
Untouchable on his beloved terre battue in Monaco and the Catalan capital at the start of the clay season, Nadal subsequently stalled, being outplayed by Andy Murray in the Madrid semi-finals and Novak Djokovic in the Rome quarters. An injury then forced him to pull out before his scheduled third-round meeting with compatriot Marcel Granollers at Roland-Garros.
After seeing his bid so disappointingly derailed last term, will 2017 be the year? This time round, Nadal knows that even a solitary crown on the red dust would be enough to make him the outright record-holder for the most men's singles clay titles in the Open Era.
Titres remportés sur terre battue (Ere Open)— Alexandre Coiquil (@Coik) 18 avril 2017
1. Nadal 49
3. Muster 40
4. Borg 30
4. Orantes 30
6. Lendl 28
7. Nastase 27
What about reclaiming the world No.1 spot before the year is out?
Nadal has displayed some of the best form on tour in the opening months of the campaign (highlighted by runners-up finishes at the Australian Open, Acapulco and Miami), rediscovering his consistency of yore and showcasing improvements to his forehand – which he has been getting more length on and hitting with more venom – and above all his confidence. In the absence of the top dog from the first quarter of the year, namely Roger Federer, and with Murray and Djokovic very much on the back foot after their early-season struggles, the Spaniard enters the clay swing as the big favourite to sweep all before him. Could this be the ideal opportunity, then, to lay the foundations for a return to the summit of world tennis a bit later in the year?
"Rafa", who has slipped to seventh in the rankings this week after seeing his 1,000 points from last year's Monte-Carlo triumph already come off (because the tournament was held a week earlier last season), has another 1,130 points to defend on clay in the coming months. This is a not insignificant number, but given his prowess on his preferred surface and his plans to play five tournaments on the dust (Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and Roland-Garros), it would be a major surprise if he were to end up with a shortfall rather than a surplus.
Nadal : points à sauver / Reste de la saison 2017 :— Alexandre Coiquil (@Coik) 18 avril 2017
Cincinnati - 90
US Open - 180
Pékin - 90
Shanghaï - 10
Favouring the Majorcan in his potential pursuit of the top spot is the fact that, after Barcelona, he will have just a further 1,020 points to defend in the rest of the season. From Madrid to Rome, through Roland-Garros, the grass swing, the North American hard-court circuit, the Asian stretch and the home straight indoors, all the pressure – rankings-wise – will be on Murray, Djokovic and even Stan Wawrinka (who has 2,000 points to protect from his US Open conquest). This opens up a window for Nadal to target retaking the number-one spot for the first time since July 2014, when Djokovic leapfrogged him on the back of being crowned champion at Wimbledon. It is a big ask, yet it will also look distinctly plausible so long as "Rafa" makes hay on clay like in the good old days.