We’re heading over to the world of tennis as we take a look at the glittering career of Rafael Nadal for the latest edition of our ICON Legends series.
The Spaniard burst onto the scene back in 2001 and after turning professional at the age of 14, it took him just four years to win his first major title. Nadal hasn’t looked back since and has won 20 Grand Slams in total, second only to Novak Djokovic in the all-time men’s rankings.
Known as the King of Clay, Nadal has dominated the French Open throughout his career, winning it a record 14 times since his first Roland Garros triumph in 2005. He’s also helped himself to four US Open titles, as well as winning both the Australian Open and Wimbledon twice.
Nadal also won gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, making him the youngest ever player to achieve a Career Golden Slam. Considering his career has regularly been disrupted by recurring injury issues, it’s remarkable that Nadal has achieved all that he has, including being the only man to win multiple majors in three separate decades.
The 37-year-old missed this year’s French Open for the first time in 19 years and looks set to finally hang up his headband in 2024. But while it may be game set and match for his illustrious career, Nadal will always remain among the greatest players to ever pick up a racket.
The King of Clay
It’s rare to see a player so dominant in one tournament but Nadal made the French Open his playground. He won it nine times in his first 10 appearances and is the only player to win the same major tournament 14 times.
At the 2017 tournament, Nadal didn’t drop a single set and of the 115 matches he’s played at the French Open, he’s only lost three times. He holds the record for the most consecutive wins on clay, remaining undefeated on the surface over 81 consecutive matches from April 2005 until May 2007.
In total, Nadal has won 63 titles on clay, remaining unbeaten in French Open finals. He’s also the only player to complete the Clay Slam, winning the French Open alongside titles at Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome in 2010.
Rivalry with Roger Federer
While Nadal and Federer were never rivals in a bitter sense and had a tremendous amount of respect for each other, for several years the pair were constantly battling for top spot. Before the emergence of Novak Djokovic, it was rare to see a Grand Slam not won by either of them.
Nadal remains the only player to beat Feder in four finals at the same major and is also the only player to defeat the Swiss in the final of three different majors, with only the US Open evading him.
In total, the pair have faced off 40 times, with Nadal coming out on top on 24 occasions. Remarkably, the Spaniard leads Federer 14-10 in their meetings in finals, although Federer has managed to defeat the master twice on clay.
They first met at the 2004 Miami Open where Nadal announced himself to the world by winning in straight sets. The pair then went on to win 11 consecutive Grand Slams between them from the 2005 French Open all the way through to the 2007 US Open.
Between 2006 and 2008 they contested every French Open and Wimbledon final. In fact, the 2008 Wimbledon final is considered by many to be the greatest tennis match of all time. Nadal took the first two sets before Federer fought back to take it to a deciding fifth set. There was nothing to separate them until Nadal finally edged it 9-7 to claim his first title at SW19.
The old rivals met for the final time in the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2019 but, unlike their first face-off in Miami, it was Federer who came out on top.
With Federer retired and Nadal expected to follow next year, it truly is the end of an era as we close the curtain on a remarkable period in modern tennis. And while the future looks bright following the emergence of Carlos Alcaraz, the young Spaniard has a long way to go before he can even come close to the achievements of his compatriot.
The word legend is thrown around far too casually in modern sport. However, following everything that he’s accomplished in his career, it would be impossible for anybody to argue that Nadal isn’t deserving of the accolade.