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GOA T When people ask me who I think the greatest player of all time is, I always hesitate. It’s a complicated issue, as many of you know. Nobody wants to step on history, and tennis evolves so much with each passing generation that it’s virtually impossible to speculate on what would happen if Roger Federer played Rod Laver or if Rafael Nadal played Bjorn Borg.

Nadal’s glorious clay-court prowess is the embodiment of his humility, of his work ethic, and the spirituality that is at his core. The fact that it is manifested more on clay than any other surface is just additional proof that Nadal resonates with the red dirt. He is at home on clay, in his comfort zone, and when he is in his comfort zone, his confidence grows.

But after witnessing Rafael Nadal’s seventh French Open title, I can say with confidence that Nadal on clay is the best player of all-time.

This year at Roland Garros, Nadal’s confidence grew to epic proportions. He took to the court like a lion that had been set free from a cage. He began dominant, losing just nine games in his first two matches, and he finished even more so, thrashing world-class players Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer before finally knocking back the very best that world No. 1 Novak Djokovic could offer in the final.

And I dare you to argue against it. With Nadal’s most recent thrashing of the Roland Garros field, the indomitable Spaniard has pushed his all-time record at the event to a jaw-dropping 52-1. His seventh title moves him beyond Borg for the most French Open titles of all-time in the same week that he eclipsed Borg’s total career clay-court wins. I could go on and on with numerical evidence of Nadal’s shocking domination of everyone and everything that dares oppose him on the clay. I could enumerate all the scorelines, the ridiculously long winning streaks (81, best in history), the fact that he’s only lost fourteen sets in 53 matches at Roland Garros, but in reality, it’s not so much about numbers with Nadal—it’s about spirit. It’s not just that he always wins, it’s how he always wins. With brutal efficiency and stunning humility, Nadal takes the court willing to give every ounce of his being to being the best he can be. Never for a second does he let up. It’s almost as if he is in a trance. The physicality is breathtaking; the passion, mind-boggling. And yet, just when you think he’s destroying everybody he faces because he’s more talented or more fit or stronger than everybody else, he says something like this: “I don’t believe in perfection, no? I really don’t like to talk about perfection, because that, in my opinion, doesn’t exist. You can play always better.” To hear the Spaniard talk like that is to realize that Nadal’s excellence is about so much more than talent or technique or a reverse forehand or sliding on clay. No, Nadal’s excellence is comprised of an all-encompassing willingness on his part to embrace the true essence of the sport.

Nicolas Almagro, one of the world’s best clay-courters in his own right, said that he played as well as he could possibly play against Nadal in a straight-sets defeat in the quarterfinals. He even looked proud of the drubbing in the press conference. Djokovic, also felt proud to give Nadal a run for his money. “I played the best player in the world on this surface. It’s incredible what he’s achieving in his career,” said Djokovic. “I gave it all.” In a final that was a test of composure and focus as much as it was a test of shotmaking and power, Nadal staved off a spirited Djokovic comeback to reach the holy grail of clay-court tennis. There were three crucial moments in the match where each player had a chance to gain momentum after rain delays, and each time Nadal seized the opportunity. When all was said and done, Nadal lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires high above his head for a remarkable seventh time on Monday not because of his ability as a tennis player, but because of his spiritual approach to the game and his willingness to leave no stone unturned in his quest for supremacy on the terre battue. If, as Nadal says, perfection doesn’t exist, then his title performance in Paris was perhaps as close as one can get.

­– Chris Oddo 39

2012 French Open Review  

We've assembled our Roland Garros wrap-up issue with our day by day thoughts on the clay fortnight: grading the field's performance, their f...