Nadal wins the French open: could he really be the Greatest of All Time?
After Rafael Nadal’s French Open win, Matthew Bowden evaluates whether he really is the Greatest of All Time, and whether he can challenge for the Wimbledon title this summer.
As Rafael Nadal hobbled to a third-round defeat against Denis Shapovalov in Rome, barely able to move around the court, even the most diehard of his fans would have struggled to envisage him lifting his 14th French Open title just three weeks later. Yet it speaks to his will and desire that he was able to do so, mining every single ounce of clay-court ability and spirit to capture the Roland Garros crown. This win moves him two ahead of both Djokovic and Federer to 22 Grand Slam titles, further fuelling the ‘Greatest of All Time’ debate between these three legends which has inevitably intensified as they approach the end of their respective careers.
At this point, Nadal winning the French Open should not come as a surprise to any half-interested tennis viewer. He has won it 14 times and lost only three matches there across 18 different editions in the French capital. However, it was the inauspicious nature of Nadal’s leadup to this particular French Open was makes it all the more impressive. Excluding the shortened 2020 clay swing, this year was the first since 2015 that Nadal has failed to win one of the three clay-court Masters titles going into the event. Despite going on a 21-match win streak through the start of 2022 that included wins at the Australian Open, his year has been clouded by injury; notably the chronic foot condition that has and seemingly will continue to plague him to some degree for the rest of his career, as well as a rib stress fracture which forced him to miss the start of the clay-court swing. These circumstances contextualise why Nadal claimed this French Open victory was his most special one yet.
The issue with the ‘Greatest of All Time’ debate is that it is ultimately redundant until all three players have completed their careers.
The issue with the ‘Greatest of All Time’ debate is that it is ultimately redundant until all three players have completed their careers. While for Federer, this reality is looming scarily nearer, Nadal and Djokovic are both still dominating at the very top of the men’s game and have titles aplenty on the horizon. Hypothetically, Djokovic could win the next three Grand Slams, and then the pendulum swings back in his favour. It is impossible to definitively judge one way or another. If you look at the stats, it is very difficult to separate Nadal and Djokovic. Nadal has two more slams, but Djokovic has one more Masters 1000 title (37 vs 36) whilst being a year younger than the Spaniard. He also blows him out of the water when it comes to World Tour Finals titles, winning five whilst Nadal is still somehow yet to achieve this accolade. However, Nadal has won the Olympics, meaning he boasts the career Golden Slam (winning all four majors and the Olympic Gold Medal) which the Serb can’t match.
Those arguing for Djokovic as the greatest would point to his proficiency on all surfaces. In an era where he has been forced to go toe-to-toe with arguably the greatest clay-court player who will ever live, he has still won two French Opens and handed Nadal two of his three defeats at Roland Garros. His grass-court success rivals Federer’s, winning six Wimbledon titles and his hard-court dominance speaks for itself. Numbers are problematic to some extent for this debate because there is kind of no end to how much they can be analysed. The way I would characterise it is this: if I had to pick someone to play a set for my life, who would it be? On the events of the last two weeks in Paris alone, you’d be hard pressed to pick someone other than Nadal.
If I had to pick someone to play a set for my life, who would it be? On the events of the last two weeks in Paris alone, you’d be hard pressed to pick someone other than Nadal.
In terms of his Wimbledon chances, footage of Nadal hitting on a grass-court in Mallorca is a positive indication as to whether he will actually compete at SW19. For me, Djokovic does go into the event as the heavy favourite. He has won the last three Wimbledon titles while Nadal hasn’t tasted grass-court major success in 12 years. On top of this, Djokovic will be licking his wounds in the face of a 2022 season that really has not gone to plan. Given his commitment to being unvaccinated which created such a storm in this year’s Australian Open and America’s staunch refusal to admit unvaccinated athletes, Wimbledon might be his only shot at a Grand Slam trophy this year. However, especially in such an open field, it would be foolish to fully write off Nadal’s chances.