Roland-Garros: The mark of Rafa
Now with 10 titles under his belt, and a decade of domination behind him, Rafael Nadal has left an indelible mark on the courts at Porte d’Auteuil. Beyond the tennis world, Rafa embodies Roland-Garros – and vice versa.
Has Nadal shaped Roland-Garros over the years, or has Roland-Garros shaped Nadal?
It’s difficult to say. Of course, the player is celebrating his 31st birthday, while the tournament just turned 116. Roland-Garros was making history long before Nadal came on the scene. But for a little over a decade, that history has been closely linked to that of a boy from the island of Mallorca, in the Balearics, born just a few days before Ivan Lendl won the French Open for the second time. A boy who would be right-handed in most matters, but left-handed when wielding a racquet. A boy who would soon come to be known as simply ‘Rafa’ in stadiums all over the world – but especially in Paris, his home away from home.
Rafael Nadal has come a long way since his first appearance – and first ever title – at Roland-Garros, in 2005. Rafa turned 19 during the tournament, blowing out the candles on a birthday cake made for him by the Roland-Garros pastry chefs. This has become something of a habit for Nadal over the course of the last decade – an eternity in the life of a high-level athlete – until 2016, when a wrist injury forced him to withdraw from the tournament just before he was due to play in the third round. As a result, Nadal spent his birthday away from the tournament for the first time since his first appearance.
Shaping the game in Paris
Having blown out the candles at Roland-Garros for 12 years, and lifted (then nibbled) the Coupe des Mousquetaires 10 times, Nadal has had time not only to grow up, but also to shape the modern game on clay – mostly with the quality of his tennis.
Studying the hallowed clay at Roland-Garros reveals two periods: before Rafa, and after Rafa. The man himself has modestly observed that his game is well adapted to the surface, with his movement and use of topspin being well suited. Particularly that famous forehand topspin. His renowned “lasso” forehand, which finishes with an over-the-head gesture, is a trademark - his lethal weapon.
In 2008, Novak Djokovic, stunned by Nadal’s performance as he crushed Nicolas Almagro in the quarter-finals, dispatched his coach Marian Vajda to centre court to investigate. When talking to an incredulous Vajda, Almagro, still reeling from his 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 defeat, shrugged his shoulders dejectedly and said, “I’m sorry, but when the ball bounces six metres off the ground, I just don’t know how to play it.” Almagro, one year older than Nadal and thrice defeated by him in quarter-finals at the French Open, has also commented on Nadal’s unique topspin. According to Almagro, no-one else hits the ball with as much force as Nadal, and no-one else can generate so much spin – a combination that is impossible for his opponents to get used to.
Nadal’s grit has also changed the way people will approach matches for generations to come. He demonstrates mental strength, aggression, and a hunger to win every point - even when his back is against the wall. Nadal’s uncle and coach Toni Nadal recognises his nephew’s mental fortitude, which for him, is paramount: “He never thinks that he will lose.”
Indeed, how many young players in tennis clubs cheered themselves on with cries of “vamos” rather than “allez” or “come on” before Rafa, the 10-time Roland-Garros champion? Before Rafa, had there ever been a player who performed two-metre-high jumps on his way from the locker room to the Philippe-Chatrier Court? Who would then sprint from the tarps at the back of the court to the baseline before getting down to business? Nadal expresses his determination in a way never witnessed before in tennis.
“He would make a wonderful torero, he's got the look for it”
Nadal pioneered the use of fashion as a way of expressing his tenacious personality; ‘Rafa’ is also a sense of style. As Christian Lacroix put it in an interview with Roland-Garros Magazine, “Rafael Nadal is elegance personified, but somewhat of a tortured soul. He would make a wonderful torero, he’s got the looks for it!”
Nadal’s sense of style certainly made an impression in his early appearances on court, donning capri pants, sleeveless T-shirts, and headbands to hold back his hair. There was something distinctly animalistic about the Manacor Bull’s long hair, and the bull would soon become his emblem, appearing as a motif on his clothes and shoes. Less flashy today, Nadal’s shorts have got shorter, and his outfits more coordinated, with matching tops and shoes. But the Spaniard’s style retains a raw, unpolished elegance.
Elegance isn’t just an attitude for Nadal, but an instinct. The ball-kids love him – he thanks them for every ball or towel they hand him, and tries to speak to them in French as much as possible. In fact, it would be near impossible to find anyone working at Roland-Garros who hadn’t fallen for the champion’s charm. Since he debuted in 2005, Nadal has maintained the same ritual, saying goodbye to every one of the staff in turn before leaving.
Humility and passion
Although Nadal’s run in the 2016 tournament ended earlier than intended, he kept up his usual rituals. Aude Thiercelin, head of accreditations and players’ invitations, noted that, “It was a touching moment when he withdrew from the tournament that year. He came to our office to say goodbye. When he left, everyone applauded him, and we all had tears in our eyes. It was very moving, because we are all very fond of him. He’s a great player, and a wonderful person.”
Make no mistake, if Roland-Garros has taught us anything about Nadal, it is that he does nothing in life without passion – or humility. Two words that perfectly define the qualities that have allowed him to excel at the Parisian tournament.
“Rafa is the most humble star that I know,” confirmed fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, who has often suffered defeat at Nadal’s hands, including once in the final of Roland-Garros in 2013. “Irrespective of how good a tennis player he is, I think he’s a better person than a tennis player. And I think we’re all lucky to have someone like Rafa, more because of the kind of person he is than because of the kind of tennis player he is. He’s normal. He plays tennis, but tennis is a sport and life goes on, and Rafa handles it really well. He doesn’t give more importance to tennis than it deserves. I see it the same way. Being an athlete is not worth more than another job. It’s just more recognised than most other jobs.”
And that’s exactly what makes Nadal who he is: now a 10-time Roland-Garros champion, still on a quest for the absolute – even at the age of 31.