When Rafael Nadal made his maiden appearance in a Grand Slam event at Wimbledon in 2003, he was just three weeks past his 17th birthday. He hadn’t yet cultivated the pirate pants-n-muscle shirts look, and even his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, looked baby-faced. But if you close your eyes and listen to clips from the match, the sound of him labouring to annihilate forehands sounds just as it does today.
There was an undercurrent of excitement in the air on that day — 23 June, 2003 — when young Nadal took the court against the 19-year-old Croat, Mario Ancic. He was perhaps the most hyped teenage talent since Bjorn Borg, and fans were, as the Guardian put it at the time, “hanging off the stairways” trying to catch a glimpse of him. Nadal missed Roland Garros that season due to an elbow injury and had a sum total of three days experience playing on grass coming into the match.
Ancic, a teen prodigy himself, had beaten Roger Federer at Wimbledon the year before. Nadal wasn’t impressed and sent the Croat packing in four sets. Some were prescient enough to grasp that a seismic talent who would one day assault the records books had emerged. Many others still dismissed him — and would for years to come — as yet another Iberian clay-court specialist.Nadal has spent nearly two decades making fools of those critics and today passes Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic with a blackjack worth of majors (21).
"He has more hunger than anyone I’ve seen."
So how did a precocious kid from in an island in the Balearic Sea rise to win more majors than anyone in the history of the sport? The foundation of Nadal’s success begins and ends with his family and the values they instilled in him, says Manolo Poyán, a Spanish broadcaster who has followed Rafa’s career since he was 17 years old, calling many of his matches for the Eurosport television network. “He was taught to be humble, to show respect and to work hard,” says Poyán.
But plenty of others were taught the same things and didn’t win a local club tournament, let alone 21 majors, so of course, there was much more, too. “He has more hunger than anyone I’ve seen,” Poyán says. “And the people who doubted him made him stronger.”
After Nadal won that first match at Wimbledon at 17, he won another and then fell to Paradorn Srichaphan in the third round. It was an auspicious start to his Grand Slam career, particularly given the circumstances, but there was no holiday afterwards. He went straight to Madrid, where he competed in the Spanish national championships, losing in the final to Feliciano Lopez, who is five years his senior. The match was Poyán’s first chance to see the brash young player who had, by that point, already scored wins at age 16 in ATP Masters 1000 events against fellow Spaniards Albert Costa and Carlos Moya, both of whom were in the Top 10 at the time. Poyán was thunderstruck by Nadal’s game — the lethal forehands, the surrealistic topspin worthy of Salvador Dalí, the footwork, the intensity; he seemed to have it all. “I thought he was a genius, really I promise,” he says.
It took Nadal four more majors before his big Grand Slam breakthrough, but he celebrated his 19th birthday and his first Roland Garros appearance in style, beating Federer en route to the title. He stunned the Swiss in that semi-final match, breaking him nine times, an indignity the Swiss man had never suffered before.
His first win in Paris earned him global popularity. The ferocity of a teenager who appeared to know no bounds and have the energy to chase down every ball was enough to captivate every fan who witnessed his matches. “Not only is he the best on clay, with his charisma and grit, he has also become a global sporting icon”, noted the El País newspaper after the 2005 final. “You can never presume to have hit a winner against Nadal, because he has such impressive reserves of energy. He gives his all, never gives up on a point and still seems less exhausted than his opponent,” continued Spain’s most-read newspaper, heaping praise on a new national icon.
“When I won, I thought at that time that it was the biggest thing I would achieve in my career,” he recalled years later. “Now, I’m going to play with peace of mind, I’m going to play more relaxed for the rest of my career. But I was completely mistaken. The years go by and you’re nervous for all of them, in all of them you want to play well, you want to have a chance to keep on winning and, honestly, the peace of mind that I thought winning Roland Garros would give me was fleeting.”
It was indeed. When he crashed out of Wimbledon, weeks later, in the second round to Gilles Muller, who was then ranked No. 69, the doubters came out in force.
The Guardian sniffed, “With his pantalones, sleeveless shirt and headband he looked like an extra for a pirates’ film who had turned up on the wrong set, so ill at ease was he throughout his match against the man from Luxembourg. In a sense he had, for his stage is the red clay of Roland Garros.”
Muller agreed. "I think maybe that Nadal is never going to win Wimbledon," he said bluntly. Undeterred, Nadal insisted that winning Wimbledon remained his goal. And much like the Nadal we’d come to admire, he made no excuses for the loss. "He play very good, no?” he said of Muller. “He play better than me. That happens.”
The slights seem ludicrous now but at the time they represented conventional wisdom in the tennis world. The brash young upstart from Mallorca wasn’t built for anything but clay, or so some thought. But Nadal chipped away at that narrative in 2006 and 2007, years when he won at Roland Garros and lost in the finals of Wimbledon to Federer. It was the early days of what has evolved into one of the greatest rivalries in sports. But even when he took the Swiss great to five sets in the 2007 loss at Wimbledon, many still doubted that he would ever eclipse Federer on grass or even hard courts, surfaces where he still hadn’t won a major.
"He gives his all, never gives up on a point and still seems less exhausted than his opponent."
But everything changed for the Spaniard on 7 July, 2008 at 9:16 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. In that moment, he flipped the script in the twilight hours on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, announcing to the world that he was no mere clay-court champ with a four hour, 48 minute triumph over Federer that’s widely considered one of the best matches in the history of the sport.
“I’m disappointed, and I’m crushed,” said Federer, who came into the match with 65 consecutive wins on grass. When asked to compare his recent loss at Roland Garros to this one, Federer didn’t mince words. “This is a disaster,” he admitted. “Paris was nothing in comparison.”
For Federer, the loss was akin to having his castle pillaged. Nadal punctuated the conquest by climbing into the player’s box to embrace his parents, his uncle Toni and Spanish Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia.
It was not long before references to the throne began to appear. Marca, the biggest sports daily in Spain called the Mallorcan’s triumph in London a changing of the guard. ‘Nadal wins the war of succession’ were the words chosen to define a heroic victory on the London turf, something that until then had been Swiss player Federer’s private stomping ground.
“He’s still the best,” Nadal said of Federer. “He’s still five-time champion here. Right now I have one, so for me, it’s a very, very important day.”
Indeed, it was a turning point for him and for the sport. The next time Nadal faced Federer in a major final, six months later at the Australian Open, Nadal won. After receiving his runner-up plate, Federer broke down in tears and struggled to make a concession speech.
“God it’s killing me,” he said, bowing his head and backing away from the microphone. In what remains one of the iconic moments in their rivalry and indeed the sport, Nadal consoled him, putting his left arm around Federer and burrowing his head in close to Roger’s to exchange a few quiet words of consolation. It was only major number six for Nadal, but it felt like a changing-of-the-guard moment.
When it was Rafa’s turn to take the microphone, he cracked up the crowd with a humble apology for his superior play.
“Well, first of all, sorry for today,” he said.
Nadal’s dominance on hard court grew his legend on tour, proving that he was a player capable of anything. “We’re running out of superlatives, but the reality remains unchanged; Rafa Nadal rules the world of tennis in every sense of the term,” said the El Mundo newspaper after the Mallorcan’s victory at Melbourne Park. “Clay courts all over the world and Wimbledon’s grass already knew it and, as from today, so do the hard courts of Melbourne”. It was a key chapter in his rivalry with Federer.
The iconic duo faced off just three more times in majors in the next eight years — in the final at Roland Garros in 2011, and in the 2012 and 2014 semi-finals in Melbourne. Each match was a win for Nadal. The Swiss champion didn’t beat his rival at a major again until he broke through in the final of the 2017 Australian Open.
Though Nadal took command of his rivalry with Federer after beating him at Wimbledon in 2008 and again in Melbourne in 2009, the months to come would be challenging ones for the Spaniard. He suffered a shocking loss to Robin Soderling at Roland Garros, his first ever there, and withdrew from Wimbledon with tendonitis in his knees weeks later.
The legend of four-time champion Nadal in Paris was already such that defeat, a frequent companion in sport, seemed to be out of the question. “The two opponents approached the net and respectfully shook hands before a stunned crowd, who had to rub their eyes to believe what they were seeing,” reported El País of the Mallorcan’s first elimination on the Philippe Chatrier court.
The Spanish have a proverb al mal tiempo, buena cara which means keep a happy face in tough times, and Nadal did just that after the Soderling loss.
“This is not a tragedy, losing here in Paris,” he said. “It had to happen one day, and this is an excellent season for me.”.
If 2009 (one major, his sixth) was an excellent season, 2010 was muy excelente as Nadal won three majors — Roland Garros, Wimbledon and his first US Open, to bring his majors haul to nine.
The tennis world was Nadal’s oyster, but Novak Djokovic, the man he beat in the final to capture his first US Open, would emerge as the man to beat in 2011. He went 70-6 that year, winning three majors while beating Nadal six times, including in the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open. From 2011-2014, the Mallorcan held serve at Roland Garros, winning each year, but the 2013 US Open was the only other major he claimed during this period.
He was hampered by nagging injuries in 2015 and 2016 and failed to win a major as Djokovic took home five. While the doubters once wrote him off as a clay-court specialist who would never amount to much off the dirt, these comparatively lean years inspired more doubters. Some said he had relied on Uncle Toni for too long and needed a coaching change. Others said that his physical style of play precluded the possibility of a long career and an assault on the record books.
Nadal had been hearing that one since at least 2006. He bristled when The New York Times asked him about it in 2009.
“They were saying this three years ago, that I couldn’t last,” Nadal said. “And after four years, I’m better than I ever was. This irritates me, no? I’m tired of people telling me I can’t go on playing like this.”
A writer at Sports Illustrated wrote that even Nadal’s most “ardent fans” hoped he wasn’t in the twilight of his career after he lost to Dustin Brown in the second round at Wimbledon in 2015. Months later, when he lost to Fabio Fognini in the third round of the US Open, USA Today referred to him as a 29-year-old “lion in winter” taking a “long, sad walk” toward retirement. He then fell in the first round of the Australian Open to start the 2016 season, prompting a writer at The New York Times to opine, “Compared with his great seasons, Nadal is in decline”.
Questions about his future were also being asked in his home country. “He’s lost that extra-terrestrial aura, the intimidating, killer look”, said newspaper El Mundo of the Spaniard’s desire to make his game more aggressive. “On the verge of 30, it is difficult to substantially change the working methods that have made him one of the greatest of all time.” He then had to withdraw from Roland Garros with a left wrist injury, inspiring more questions about whether his body would allow him to challenge the record books.
"I’m tired of people telling me I can’t go on playing like this."
To add insult to injury, he was then beaten by Lucas Pouille in the fourth round at the US Open. In the post-match press conference, the Spaniard got uncharacteristically testy with a reporter who asked him if the pressure was getting to him in the majors.
“After winning 14 (majors) and being in semi-finals a lot of times, you feel that's pressure?” he asked. “At 30 years old, after having the career that I have, is not a question of pressure.”
As the doubts about whether his major haul would stop right alongside Pete Sampras at 14, Nadal acknowledged that he’d need to adapt his game to keep winning.
“The game is changing a little bit,” he said. “Everybody hit the ball hard and try to go for the winners in any position. The game’s become a little bit more crazy in this aspect.”
In December 2016, Nadal announced the addition of Carlos Moyà to his coaching staff. With one of his childhood heroes and a great mentor throughout his career, the Mallorcan was seeking a new direction for his sporting reinvention. The first Spanish World No. 1 defined the spirit of the union. “[Rafa] is a special player but above all a great person and a friend that I have a lot of belief in. I want him to return to winning the titles we all hope he does.”
But like any great champion, Nadal didn’t sit around crying in his paella. He worked on his serve and started finishing more points at the net. The result was a 23-2 record at the majors in 2017 with titles at Roland Garros and the US Open, his 15th and 16th majors, not to mention a tough five-set loss to a resurgent Roger Federer in the final of the Australian Open that easily could have gone his way.
When he won Roland Garros for the 11th, 12th and 13th times in 2018-2020, Nadal set an unprecedented record that seemed untouchable. Now, with his second Australian Open title, he becomes the most decorated Grand Slam champion with 21 major titles.
He is a long way from his Wimbledon debut in 2003. But, still looking formidable at 35, Nadal also seems a long way from being done with the record books. Next stop: Roland Garros.
- With additional reporting by Alvaro Rama
Nadal became the first player since Mats Wilander in 1982 to win the Roland Garros trophy on his tournament debut. The 19-year-old overcame World No. 1 Roger Federer in four sets to reach the championship match, where he defeated Mariano Puerta of Argentina 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5.
Nadal became the first player to defeat Federer in a Grand Slam final with a 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6(4) victory at Roland Garros. The Spaniard’s victory against Federer was his 60th consecutive match win on clay.
Following a semi-final win against Novak Djokovic, Nadal claimed another four-set final win against Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to increase his unbeaten record at Roland Garros to 21-0. The 21-year-old also became the first man since Bjorn Borg (1978-’81) to win three consecutive titles on the Parisian terre battue.
For the first time in his career, Nadal won a Grand Slam without dropping a set at Roland Garros in 2008. The World No. 2 once again overcame Djokovic to set a final meeting with Federer, where he cruised to a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 triumph in one hour and 48 minutes.
In one of the greatest matches of all-time, Nadal clinched his maiden Wimbledon crown with a memorable 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 victory against five-time defending champion Federer. The five-time Grand Slam champion became the first player since Borg in 1980 to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year, as he ended Federer’s all-time record run of 65 consecutive grass match wins.
After a thrilling five-hour, 10-minute semi-final win against Fernando Verdasco, Nadal claimed his third Grand Slam final victory in less than seven months against Federer with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2 win. The World No. 1 became the first Spanish man to win a Grand Slam singles title on hard courts and matched Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg’s Grand Slam trophy hauls.
After suffering his first loss at Roland Garros against Robin Soderling in the Round of 16 in 2009, Nadal returned one year later to claim his fifth trophy at the clay-court Grand Slam championship. The Mallorcan defeated Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in the championship match to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires without dropping a set for the second time.
After surviving back-to-back five-set matches in the early stages of the tournament, Nadal charged to his second Wimbledon crown with a 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 final victory against Tomas Berdych. The World No. 1, who was unable to defend his title in 2009 due to injury, joined fellow eight-time Grand Slam champions Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi on the Grand Slam titles leaderboard.
Nadal became the youngest man in the Open Era — and only the seventh man in history — to complete the Career Grand Slam with his title run at the 2010 US Open. In a Monday final, the 24-year-old defeated Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 to confirm his place in the history books.
After final losses to Novak Djokovic in Madrid and Rome, Nadal defeated Soderling and Andy Murray to reach his seventh straight tour-level final. Waiting across the net was Federer, who had ended Djokovic’s title bid and 41-match unbeaten start to 2011 in the semi-finals. After a tight opening three sets, Nadal raced to a 7-5, 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-1 victory and joined fellow six-time champion Borg at the top of the Roland Garros titles leaderboard.
Nadal became the first man to win seven Roland Garros titles in 2012, as he defeated Djokovic 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 in a rain-affected two-day final in Paris. The Spaniard’s victory moved him level on the Grand Slam titles leaderboard with fellow 11-time major titlists Rod Laver and Borg.
Due to a knee injury, Nadal missed seven months of action before returning to the ATP Tour in February 2013. Just four months later, he raised his eighth Roland Garros crown. The 27-year-old outlasted Djokovic in a marathon four-hour, 37-minute semi-final and overpowered countryman David Ferrer 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 to match Roy Emerson’s mark of 12 Grand Slam crowns.
Nadal entered the US Open with a 15-0 unbeaten record on hard courts in 2013. Seven matches later, he lifted his second trophy in New York. The Spaniard dropped just one set en route to the final, where he defeated Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
With wins against Ferrer and Murray, Nadal booked his ninth final appearance at Roland Garros. With his World No. 1 position in the FedEx ATP Rankings on the line, Nadal recovered from a set down to beat Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 and tie Pete Sampras’s mark of 14 Grand Slam titles.
In 2017, Nadal entered Roland Garros on a three-year Grand Slam title drought. The Spaniard ended that run in emphatic fashion, as he dropped just 35 games throughout the tournament to become the only man to win a Grand Slam singles title on 10 occasions. In the final, Nadal cruised past Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 to hand the Swiss his first loss in four Grand Slam finals.
Nadal fought from a set down on three occasions to reach the championship match at the US Open. Once he got there, he found his best level to move past first-time Grand Slam finalist Kevin Anderson 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 and gain crucial points in his battle with Federer for the year-end World No. 1 position in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
In the semi-finals, Nadal earned a straight-sets win against Juan Martin del Potro to book a third clay meeting of the year against first-time major finalist Dominic Thiem. The pair had split their opening two matches of the year on the surface, but Nadal rose to the occasion in Paris to win 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 and collect his 11th Roland Garros crown.
In windy conditions, Nadal improved to 6-0 against Federer at Roland Garros with a straight-sets semi-final win. The 33-year-old became the first player to win a tour-level event on 12 occasions with a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 triumph against Thiem in the final.
Nadal was pushed to the limit in the 2019 US Open final, as he let slip a two-sets-to-love lead against first-time Grand Slam finalist Daniil Medvedev. But the Spaniard held his nerve in a dramatic fifth set to overcome the Russian 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 in four hours and 51 minutes and tie John McEnroe’s haul of four US Open trophies.
With Roland Garros delayed by four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nadal had to adjust to cool conditions in Paris to complete one of the most memorable title runs of his career. The 34-year-old marched through the field without dropping a set and matched Federer’s all-time record haul of 20 Grand Slam crowns with a dominant 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 final win against Djokovic.
Coming into the 2022 Australian Open, Nadal was uncertain how his long-term left foot injury would stand up to the rigours of seven best-of-five-set matches. In just his second tournament since mid-August, the Spaniard was pushed to four sets by Karen Khachanov (R3) and Matteo Berrettini (SF) and to five sets by Denis Shapovalov (QFs) before rallying from two sets down for the first time in almost 15 years (Wimbledon 2007, d. Youzhny) to stun World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev in five sets in the final. Victory saw Nadal join Novak Djokovic as just the second player in the Open Era to win all four majors twice. More importantly, he broke a tie with Djokovic and Federer for most Grand Slam titles won (21).
"To my friend and great rival Rafael Nadal. Heartfelt congratulations on becoming the first man to win 21 Grand Slam singles titles. A few months ago we were joking about both being on crutches. Amazing. Never underestimate a great champion. Your incredible work ethic, dedication and fighting spirit are an inspiration to me and countless others around the world. I am proud to share this era with you and honoured to play a role in pushing you to achieve more, as you have done for me for the past 18 years."
"Wow. Congrats Rafael Nadal! An absolute pleasure to watch"
"You raised your level after two sets for the 21st Grand Slam... You’re an amazing champion."
"21 Grand Slam titles… Pure admiration for Rafael Nadal and his historic achievement 👑🏆"
"What an absolute champion and even better human 🌟 you are so inspiring in so many different ways 🙌🏽 thank you for showing us the only way and that is to fight, Rafael Nadal"
"Congratulations to Rafael Nadal for 21st GS. Amazing achievement. Always impressive fighting spirit that prevailed another time. Enhorabuena."
"Two AO crowns and 21 majors, given everything you have endured this historic victory is so special Rafa. It has been a privilege to watch you doing what you love. Congratulations🚀"
"The mental and physical marathon of a 5-hour Grand Slam final requires grit, guts, spirit, & determination. Congratulations to Rafael Nadal on his 21st Grand Slam! What a comeback!"
"What a final 🤯 well done to both competitors 👏👏 & congrats to Rafael Nadal for making history once again. 🏆"
"Congrats on your 21st Grand Slam Rafael Nadal! What a hero and what an achievement."