“We play tennis. He plays something else’’ an exasperated opponent once exclaimed after being outplayed by Bjorn Borg at the height of the peerless Swede’s career in the 70s and early 80s when he won five consecutive Wimbledons and six French Open crowns. Three times in a row did Borg win the French and Wimbledon titles in 1978, 1979 and 1980 narrowly missing the feat in 1981 when he lost to John McEnroe in the Wimbledon final after winning his sixth title at Roland Garros a truly phenomenal achievement considering the vast change in the surfaces.
Opponents frustrated time and again by the genius of Rafael Nadal on clay courts could well say the same thing. Here is a man who has won the French Open title 12 times. No player has won any single Grand Slam title that many times. Of course unlike Borg who never won the Australian Open in which he hardly participated and the US Open where he was runner-up four times Nadal has won all the four Grand Slams and with 18 such titles he is snapping at the heels of Roger Federer who has a record 20.
The latest triumph is a tribute to Nadal’s fighting qualities for which he is well known. He didn’t have the best start to the clay court season being beaten in the semifinals at Monte Carlo, the Barcelona Open and the Madrid Open. But clawing his way back on his favourite surface he returned to his winning ways at the Italian Open defending his title by defeating world no 1 Novak Djokovic in the final. This put him in a confident frame of mind for the French Open where he brooked no opposition. The manner in which he outplayed Roger Federer in the semifinal handing him one of his worst defeats in a Grand Slam was straight out of the fiction books and this was followed by a victory over Dominic Thiem of Austria in the title clash. Theim along with Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece are the two fast rising players on the ATP circuit. But for the second successive year Thiem had to finish runner-up to Nadal, undoubtedly the greatest clay court player of all time.
While Thiem and Tsitsipas continue to win ATP Tour tournaments and rise in the rankings they are unable to challenge the Big Three when it comes to Grand Slam titles. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic between them have won the last ten Grand Slams and for Wimbledon Djokovic despite his semifinal loss to Thiem at Roland Garros must still be favourite closely followed by Nadal and Federer. The challengers may have to wait for their first Grand Slam title.